While there was plenty of action in state politics in 2011, many of the events simply set the stage for future political battles in 2012 and beyond.
TAX CUTS GO FURTHER
Gov. Mike Beebe’s (D) desire to hold the line on tax cuts to an additional half-cent reduction in the grocery tax was quickly dashed by state legislators with other ambitions.
Beebe wound up compromising on a variety of additional tax cut measures beyond the grocery tax, in large part due to the strength of a surprisingly robust Republican minority in the legislature. The General Assembly cut taxes on used cars, manufacturers, back-to-school sales, and low-income households. A capital gains tax cut bill was defeated, although it garnered strong support.
There will be more battles in the budget session of 2012 and the regular session of 2013. Rep. Davy Carter (R-Cabot) has proposed a review of all sales tax exemptions and exclusions on the Arkansas books.
THE REDISTRICTING BATTLE
They’ll be talking about the “Fayetteville Finger” for decades. The phrase dominated the decennial Congressional redistricting process as Democrats worked hard to shore up a stronger Fourth Congressional District for their cause.
The plan passed the House by a small majority, but couldn’t muster the votes in the Senate despite Democratic control. In the end, a more palatable map for the state’s four Congressional Districts were approved, and by most accounts, political observers see them all as potentially winnable seats for Republicans.
The Governor, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel (D) and Secretary of State Mark Martin (R) also carved up 135 new legislative districts as part of the state redistricting process. This once-a-decade undertaking means every State House and State Senate seat in Arkansas will be up for election in 2012 and with close party lines in each chamber, the new year could be a watershed year for Democrats or Republicans.
CONGRESSMAN MIKE ROSS RETIRES
Fourth District Rep. Mike Ross (D) shocked the political establishment with a July announcement that he would not seek re-election. He had served since 2001 in Congress and had easily won re-election in 2010 despite heavy Republican gains across the state and nation.
Ross’ move caught Democrats off-guard and renewed optimism among Republicans that the south Arkansas seat could change party hands in 2012. Ross will serve through next year and is expected to be laying the foundation for a run for Governor in 2014.
HEALTH CARE HEATS UP
At the beginning of 2011, it was apparent that federal health care reform’s implementation in Arkansas would be a heated issue. A large number of GOP legislators were swept into state and federal offices in late 2010 over angst on the issue.
Several attempts were made to slow down the effort in the Arkansas General Assembly, most of them unsuccessfully. However, state Insurance Commissioner Jay Bradford was stymied at nearly every turn by reluctant legislators — mostly Republican — that ultimately forced him to “quash” efforts to construct a state-sponsored adaptation of a federal health insurance exchange.
By year’s end, all eyes were pointed towards a pending U.S. Supreme Court decision expected in 2012 that may decide federal health care reform’s constitutionality.
MEDICAID REFORM INTRODUCED
Gov. Beebe’s efforts to reform the state’s Medicaid system had as much business reverberation as it did political. Facing a looming budget crisis, the multi-billion Medicaid program is looking to be drastically altered.
Beebe’s announcement and the initial changes being proposed turned the state’s already turbulent health care system on its head. For doctors, patients, hospitals, insurance companies and others, 2012 will be a landmark year that could reshape their business models for decades.
WEST MEMPHIS 3 FREED
Who would have ever believed that 2011 would be the year that three convicted murderers would be released from prison through quickly developing and obscure legal maneuvers?
With only about one day’s notice to the press, on Friday morning, August 19, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. — the West Memphis 3 (WM3) — were released from life sentences and death row despite their convictions in the 1993 murders of three West Memphis children —- Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch and Michael Moore.
Prosecutor Scott Ellington was facing a probable retrial of the case, which had weakened considerably since their first convictions. Ellington and defense lawyers for the WM3 worked out an “Alford guilty plea” to an amended charge of first degree murder and were released to time served in an agreement with the state. An “Alford guilty plea” is a no contest plea where the accused claim their innocence, but plead guilty anyway to get the deal instead of risk trial.
The WM3 release re-ignited passionate debates regarding the merits of the case and grabbed significant political and celebrity attention in the process.
POST OFFICE CLOSURES RILE RURAL RESIDENTS
The U.S. Postal Service, which is operating with a nearly $10 billion deficit, decided that 2011 was the year to deal with its troubled finances. Among the changes the USPS proposed included raising the cost of stamps, limiting days of service, laying off workers, and slashing the number of postal outlets it has across the U.S.
For Arkansas, the cuts could close more than 200 local post offices, many in rural parts of the state. The moves riled rural legislators and Congressional officials who understood the ramifications for Arkansas, a largely rural state.
USPS officials delayed decisions well into 2012 to fade the political heat, but it is only likely to be re-kindled when the subject arises again in the new year.