As Arkansas prepares for another regular session of the Arkansas General Assembly, we look back on the past two years. The Arkansas legislature’s activity over the past two years must be summarized as “Red Rhetoric – Blue Results.”
Arkansas is a solid “Red State” – Republican, which means we hear lots of loud red rhetoric … but Arkansans still get Blue results.
In 2017-2018 the Republican Party held overwhelming majorities in the Arkansas Senate and Arkansas House of Representatives, as well as holding all the constitutional offices of the executive branch. Despite Republican control, most of the legislation passed in the past two years could have also been passed by a Democrat legislature.
The fight in the legislature was not so much Republicans versus Democrats, as big government establishment Republicans versus platform Republicans. A “Platform Republican” is one who votes based on the conservative principles of the Republican platform.
As examples of the Blue results, let’s look at three area: taxes, government growth, and the government swamp.
TAXES: While Congress was passing President Trump’s tax relief plan, Arkansas was playing games with taxes. While bragging on tax cuts the Arkansas legislature was also passing additional taxes. The Arkansas plan was and is – fool the people with tax shifting, while keeping Arkansas as one of the very worst tax states in the nation.[i]
Arkansas politicians claimed victory for passing a modest income tax relief package and an income tax exemption for veterans who receive military retirement (not all veterans as often claimed).[ii]
Meanwhile, Arkansas politicians passed several taxes in 2017 including: a sales tax on digital downloads (such as books, movies, music, and software), an income tax on unemployment compensation, increased sales tax on soft drinks and candy, an increase in the special recycling tax on new tires, and a new special recycling tax on mounting used tires.[iii]
We must give credit to the Arkansas House of Representatives for refusing to pass an Internet Sales Tax and higher taxes on gasoline and diesel in 2017. Those two victories may be short lived as tax and spend politicians think they will get the taxes passed in 2019.
The plan for 2019 appears to be – brag on a tax cut but increase overall taxes.[iv] There is a proposed income tax cut being bragged on but politicians expect to impose an internet sales tax (HB1002) requiring you to pay tax on your out-of-state purchases that are not currently taxed. There also will be a push to trigger increased taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel, and there is discussion about passing a half cent sales tax to replace one scheduled to expire and use it as highway funds.[v]
GOVERNMENT GROWTH: Who would have thought the Republican majority in the Arkansas legislature would have created a huge new government program in 2017 or that the program would be environmental regulation.
The legislature passed Act 317 of 2017 establishing a huge regulatory program taxing and monitoring tires. It doubled the recycling tax on new tires to $2.00 and imposed a tax of $1.00 for mounting used tires. This was just the beginning of a money grab which includes fees and regulations on transporters of tires, etc. The program is intended to monitor tires from cradle to grave. The legislation decreased the number of tire disposal sites and almost all of the disposal sites are government owned. In a state of streams, lakes, ponds, ditches and rice paddies, the program is supposed to abate mosquitoes.
While the tire program is a huge increase in government, at least the program is not as huge as the Obamacare Medicaid Expansion adopted in 2013 and readopted in 2016 under the misnamed program Arkansas Works.
On a positive note, the legislature declared victory over regulations when it eliminated a stack of out-dated regulations. We applaud the effort, but it is not what anyone hoped for. While cleaning up the books was long overdue, the big problem is not how many pages you have to thumb through to find out what is required of you. The real problem is the large number of intrusive requirements you must meet to conduct business. And we wait.
The Governor has proposed consolidating a number of state agencies and some people have misunderstood and think it is about reducing government. No, it is about management style; government will stay just as big but within larger agencies.
THE GOVERNMENT SWAMP: The years 2017 and 2018 were a huge embarrassment with legislators, former legislators, and lobbyists being found guilty of corruption or pleading guilty of corruption. There were kickbacks for spending General Improvement funds and paybacks for funneling money to huge Medicaid providers. In addition, there have been criminal charges for the alleged misuse of campaign funds for personal use.
How did the legislature respond? The legislature rejected two major ethics bills in 2017 and then in 2018 the Arkansas Senate paid lip service to ethics by passing a plan to monitor themselves. Some members of the new Senate committee openly expressed concern that rules not be too restrictive.
The most needed of the rejected ethics bills was SB175 of 2017. It would have required Medicaid providers to report business done with legislators and other public officials. Medicaid legislation is the most susceptible area for corruption because of the billions of dollars involved. The huge corruption exposed just concerning the Medicaid provider Preferred Family Health Care screams for stringent ethics rules.
The other important ethics legislation killed by politicians was SB726 of 2017. The bill would have closed a loophole that lets legislators who are attorneys or consultants represent clients before the legislature. These cozy contracts appear to be nothing but “pay to play” schemes to influence legislation.
The Arkansas government swamp is alive and stinking as Arkansas government spends money to give contracts to the highest bidder and reward cronies with more incentive money used to pick winners and losers among business.
THERE IS HOPE: A look ahead to 2019-2020
Despite being Republican, the Governor and legislative leaders are firmly entrenched in promoting more government growth, rewarding cronies, minimizing oversight of their actions, and conducting business as usual.
There is hope. First, the people of Arkansas increased the Republican majority in the legislature. Second, there is a minority of returning Republican legislators who have held firm to conservative principles and a few who have voted for big government who are not solidly in that camp. Third, conservatives in Arkansas are recovering from their shock of being betrayed by the new majority and are once again becoming more vocal.
· More citizens are showing up to legislative committees to record meetings and report back to other conservatives.
· Arkansas gun owners became gun rights advocates under the banner of Patriots of Act 746 and many of those same people are now becoming more involved in other conservative issues.
· Tea Party groups who were belittled by some of politicians they helped elect have withstood the attacks and aren’t going away.
· An organization promoting family values in Arkansas was threaten by Republican politicians for daring to opposes Issue #1 and for issuing a report card on how well or poorly legislators voted, yet despite the threats the organization continues as strong as ever.
· Conduit For Action continues in the fight by promoting conservative values no matter how mad it makes pretend conservatives.
· Conduit News continues to grow in viewers and listeners.
· And most importantly, individuals and a variety of organizations are helping the people of Arkansas understand and recognize the games politicians play to keep big government in control.
Politicians with the help of special interests continue to play the Red Rhetoric – Blue Results game but the spotlight is making it more difficult for them to fool you.
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