Things are calm, more or less, in our state.
Yes, the Human Services department’s foster child division is again in the headlines, for its being in court for a new lawsuit alleging negligence; but DHS and its several bureaus are always in the news, more often than not in a negative way.
Uncertainty surrounds the Medicaid program and what is now “Arkansas Works,” formerly the Private Option, what with Congress unable to repeal the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), given that a substantial number of Republican representatives and senators (including some from Arkansas) and Republican governors (including the one from Arkansas) have concluded that parts of it aren’t really that bad after all. But it will all work out, no?
Almost all state-supported two- and four-year colleges have now raised the cost of higher education by jacking up tuition; but they do that every year, in part a response to appropriations resolutely flatlined for the better part of a decade now by successive governors and legislatures.
Our highways continue to crumble, of course, as do city and county streets and roads, the General Assembly having left town without addressing surface infrastructure. But a little patchwork here and there will do, surely.
State government’s books are balanced, as always, because they have to be, because the Arkansas Constitution requires it; and everyone, most everyone, is enjoying the tax cuts that began a decade ago. More are anticipated, and if that means cutting spending to make A equal B, then by all means we will do what needs to be done. As Governor Hutchinson did just a few weeks ago, ordering $70 million in reductions by the end of the fiscal year, June 30. And a $40 million cut in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The new normal? The new calm?
Another “blue ribbon” commission has been empaneled to study the Arkansas tax code, all of it, and to recommend whether a wholesale restructuring is in order. And if the myriad exemptions to state sales and use taxes are justified. The last such panel examined the matter and couldn’t identify a single exemption deserving of repeal.
So, with things here on an even, balanced keel, the opportunity arises to glance about us, at some other states in our corner of the Republic, states that are dealing with some of the very same issues as Arkansas has confronted, to one extent or another. Odd, how the currents seem to flow.
Kansas: The Republican-dominated legislature has given GOP Gov. Sam Brownback the back of its hand, overturning his veto of tax increases intended to counter projected deficits of some $900 million. Emphasis, projected: Kansas would have recorded huge deficits in previous years had not the legislature been compelled to slash services to make ends meet. Twice Kansas’s credit rating in the bond market has been downgraded, and public schools were so severely impacted that the Kansas Supreme Court has ordered remedial spending, a la Arkansas and the Lake View case of a few years ago. The trouble began with Brownback’s enormous tax cuts, which promised milk and honey but have delivered only oceans of red ink. Our nearer neighbors, in Louisiana and Oklahoma, are struggling with the same cause-and-effect dynamic.
Texas: Ah, special session time, and for an issue that Arkansas thus far has managed to dodge. The Lone Star legislature adjourned a few days ago without passing one of those bathroom bills designed to, in the language of its advocates, “protect” women and children from peeping toms or other undesirables, meaning the transgendered. One of the nation’s most conservative governors was deemed by his even more conservative lieutenant governor, who controls the Senate, and by the latter’s arch-conservative evangelical supporters, to be a wimp. So, despite opposition from the moderate Republican speaker of the Texas House, and from the Texas business community, the governor caved and summoned his lawmakers. It’s an echo of —
North Carolina: Cooler heads prevailed there, but only after cold, hard pressure from national and global business enterprises, including the NCAA. Discrimination of any kind is not cool, they warned, and the threat of economic sanctions was enough to force the bathroom bunch to back down. The big issue, for the moment, remains voter identification, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to reverse a lower court’s finding that restrictions on balloting targeted minority voters “with almost surgical precision.” But North Carolina’s former governor, the first since statehood to not be re-elected, is urging the legislature to keep trying. Ousted last November, Republican Pat McCrory insists he was defeated because of substantial “voter fraud.” His complaints were investigated by the state’s Board of Elections, which indeed found ineligible ballots were cast: 508 of approximately 4,600,000. McCrory lost by 10,000.