Leader Blues

Friday, April 10, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Lawmakers go home

The General Assembly wrapped up its session Thursday after 88 days with the lawmakers and the governor swapping lavish encomiums and everyone pounding their own backs in the ritual of self-congratulation that has followed every biennial session for a century and a half. But unless we missed it, no one called the session “historic,” which was the label that governors like Orval Faubus and Mike Huckabee applied to legislatures that went along with some of their ideas. Most often, the legislative sittings were historic only in their indifference to the manifold problems of the people, which would go unaddressed for yet another two years.

If the 87th General Assembly, as this one is called, turns out to be historic it will be because it neglected to see the storm clouds on the horizon and needlessly cut taxes to keep political promises and to curry favor with some powerful interests. We can only hope that Arkansas’ remarkable resilience to the global economic travails continues until the national economy gets back on track. If it does not, the 87th will be back to redress its oversights, and it will not be fun or nearly as congenial as this session has been.

Governor Beebe, addressing the Senate at adjournment, remarked that the lawmakers had worked in non-partisan harmony, good exemplars for the deeply riven Congress of the United States.

The Arkansas legislature indeed has been free of partisanship since the years after Reconstruction, but largely because, whatever their formal party affiliation, lawmakers shared the same hidebound notions about what constituted the public good and whose interests were paramount (usually not the people’s).

But there was some partisan division this year. A sizable part of the Republican contingent, which now is roughly a fourth of each house, championed some nutty proposals but usually could not find quite enough craven Democrats to send the bills to the governor. Had they done so, it would have been interesting. Governor Beebe has a nearly ironclad policy of not vetoing bills, which means that he does not have to disappoint the legislators who sponsored had championed them. It is one secret to his success in getting his way with the legislature, though there is nothing furtive about it. He said last week that he flatly would not veto any bills. We remember when Governor Winthrop Rockefeller — and less frequently his successor, Dale Bumpers — took pleasure in using the veto stamp. In Rockefeller’s case, the legislature routinely overrode the vetoes, which it can do in Arkansas by a simple majority in both houses.

Much has been written about Governor Beebe’s amazing success. Whatever he wants (almost) he gets. This time, he said, he was disappointed that the legislature did not pass an energy conservation bill he supported or the resolution ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment, which has been resurrected the past two sessions after its ignominious death in the Arkansas Senate in 1973. One political columnist suggested that it was time to assess Beebe’s place in history, perhaps at the very top of the roll of effective governors.

There may have been no governor in history who enjoyed — perhaps even engineered — so much political peace, in his case for going on three years now. Having spent two decades mastering the legislative arts and dynamics, he knows what can be done and how to do it without ruffling feathers. Unlike Mike Huckabee, his predecessor, he never barrels out attacking anyone who has a different notion from his.

But there is a better explanation for Beebe’s high degree of success. He just doesn’t ask for much. He has offered no bold ideas. The record of reforms and of better services pales beside that of, say, Bumpers, Sid McMath and Bill Clinton — or, for that matter, Huckabee, who signed, embraced and then claimed credit for a passel of major reforms instigated by the Democratic legislature.

Mike Beebe is content to consolidate, streamline and manage the affairs of state. Someone called him the perfect technocratic chief executive. That is not to derogate him. His predecessor mismanaged the government horribly, leaving wreckage in big programs like health and human services.

Beebe’s big successes heretofore were halving the sales tax on groceries and increasing the severance tax on natural gas. Any governor can cut taxes, and the severance tax was made doable by an initiative campaign that was likely to place a 7 percent tax on gas extractions. The industry, which had kept the tax minuscule for almost a century, was eager to help the governor pass a modest one.

This session had one notable achievement, a hefty cigarette tax that will finance a statewide trauma center and modestly improve a score of other public health programs. The legislature passed an enabling act setting up the state’s first lottery, but only the details had been left hanging after voters amended the Constitution in November prescribing a lottery and the broad outlines of how it would be done.

Beyond that, virtually nothing that anyone should long remember came out of the session, although some 2,000 new laws will go on the books. This session, like every other in recent years and like those in nearly all the states, significantly enlarged the legal code by criminalizing even more negligent, unsanitary or boorish behavior. The ones that created the biggest fuss will allow police to stop cars and arrest drivers and passengers for not wearing seat belts, youngsters for using cell phones in their cars and merchants for selling toy guns. But there were many others.

A scholar at the Cato Institute described the trend toward criminalization a few years ago: “The criminal law has become an all-purpose tool for legislators to signal that they are serious about whatever the social problem of the month is. . . The criminal law is the society’s most powerful moral sanction and it ought to be reserved for those sorts of really dangerous and blameworthy offenses that you’re willing to lock people up for.”

But what else is there for a lawmaker to do? If you do not address petty fears and concerns you might have to face the big ones, like vanishing health care, failing schools, the vast and expensive prison overpopulation, corrosive ethical laxity in public officials and . . . Well, the list goes on.