Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

SATURDAY EDITORIAL >> Successful session ends

With an ease that no one could have imagined even a year ago, the Arkansas legislature this week overwhelmingly passed and Gov. Huckabee eagerly signed laws raising the minimum wage by $1.10 an hour and banishing smoking from nearly every workplace in Arkansas. Only the smoking ban attracted more than a smattering of “no” votes in either house.

This does not sound like the Arkansas Legislature that anyone would have recognized the past dozen years, nor does it seem like the same governor who has visited Republican venues around the country talking about small government and business freedom. This little session, also without more than a whimper of opposition, put $200 million more into public education the next 18 months. Even conservative Republican legislators tended to go along with the whole expansive government agenda.

All this was accomplished without much euphoria in the two chambers as if everyone was acting from obligation and not inspiration. The explanation was that the Arkansas Supreme Court had ordered the legislature and governor to revisit school finance and do more to comply with a constitutional standard of adequate and equal education. In the cases of wages and smoking, the legislature and the governor were driven by democratic impulses that they were loath to buck.

A coalition of church and labor groups was putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would have required annual increases in the minimum wage for all workers indexed to inflation, and a poll showed that voters favored it by margins of 3 or 4 to 1. Congress has not raised the minimum wage in nine years and many states are resorting to initiative propositions to give poor workers some relief. Huckabee called the session at the behest of business leaders who do not want automatic wage floors built into the Constitution.

The Republican Party historically has opposed the minimum wage, but peculiar political forces have now twice impelled Republican governors to offer state minimum-wage legislation.

Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, a Republican, proposed the first state minimum wage in 1968, and the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature felt compelled to pass it.

The smoking ban, however, can be chalked up to Gov. Huckabee’s passion. No one can be sure whether it is a passion to be president or his newfound passion for good health. But he should be given credit whatever his motive. Unless you work in a tobacco store or a few other rare spots the air soon should be free of tobacco smoke.

Many legislators resented the governor putting the issue in the legislative call for the session, forcing them to choose between alienating the non-smoking public on one hand and smokers and many business concerns, and all to buff his credentials as the Republican presidential candidate most likely to do something about the health crisis.

While the votes were lopsided, one brand of Republican saw the session as the death knell for Huckabee’s presidential ambitions. Libertarian Re-publicans, they say, will no longer view him as a business friendly, small-government Republican because he has been willing to impose far greater government restraints on the freedom of businessmen and a considerably greater tax burden on everyone but the rich.

They miscalculate. Laissez-faire Adam Smith Republicans are a small cohort even in today’s Republican Party. What even evangelical folks admire is a politician who gets things done. Limited government is an appealing slogan, but hardshell Christians like clean air as much as Massachusetts liberals. Maybe more.

Huckabee did not hurt himself this week.