Abusing the political ‘block’ in the Arkansas Legislature

by John Burris ([email protected]) 195 views 

Editor’s note: John Burris is a former member of the Arkansas Legislature. Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of Talk Business & Politics.

Legislative procedure is a complex web of meaningful thresholds and rules. It has been used and abused for good causes and bad. The Arkansas constitution, in its wisdom, gives great leniency to small legislative minorities. It allows one/fourth of either chamber to block but not amend the level at which agencies set spending amounts.

But leniency, as it tends to do, has created an unrealistic set of expectations, this time for a small handful of legislators who oppose Gov. Asa Hutchison’s Arkansas Works plan.

The minority now demands to set the policy for the entire state. They want to do so in a way that overrides the expressed will of the majority. Seventy of 100 members of the House of Representatives and 25 of 35 members of the Senate approved the governor’s plan in a special session. The law is signed and in effect. All of that is impossible to undo in fiscal session. So instead, the strategy of the super-minority is to obstruct a general funding bill until the super-majority decides to reverse course and rescue them from brinkmanship by repealing the recently passed law. It’s unlikely to happen the way they want it to.

Meanwhile, opponents say many things about the process that are worth noting, either for their unfairness or inaccuracy.

They say it’s wrong to include funding for Arkansas Works in the line-item for the Department of Human Services Medical Services Appropriation, asking it to be amended out and voted on separately. But Medicaid programs have always been funded in a general Medicaid appropriation. It could be amended out if the votes existed to do so, but they don’t. So they’re asking supporters of Arkansas Works to do something that has never been done to help them do something the supporters don’t want them to do.

They say the constitution allows them to have input over spending levels and that blocking an appropriation is exercising that right. But blocking isn’t input; it’s control. A majority of the legislature gets to set the policy, which is like picking the house to live in. The minority can then have some input, like how the house is decorated, but they can’t pour gasoline everywhere and threaten to burn it down unless a different house is chosen.

They say voting for the DHS Medical Services Appropriation is the same as voting for the policy Arkansas Works. It’s not. In 2009, I voted against a tobacco tax increase to fund programs at the Department of Health. But that year and every year after that, I voted for the department’s appropriation. My position on the tax increase didn’t change. I simply acknowledged I had lost the policy fight. Every senator who is now threatening to vote against the DHS appropriation voted for the Department of Health’s appropriation last year. They even voted for millions of dollars in General Improvement Funds to be granted to the department, above the general revenue request. So they’re for unneeded pork barrel spending and tax increases, according to their own logic.

They also repeat one final inaccuracy, and it’s by far the most frustrating. When describing the process that produced the Private Option and now Arkansas Works, some opponents constantly use tinged words like “bribery,” “extortion” and “blackmail” to describe the process that produced an outcome they don’t like. They provide no specific examples, only vague innuendo.

If there is bribery, it should be punished. But intentional allusion to criminal behavior in the public policy arena is just as hurtful. Both create the same perception in the eye of the voter. If a legislator makes an accusation, they should prove it with fact. Otherwise, they’re just lying about their colleagues to aid their own self-promotion.

Sometimes it happens unintentionally. In 2013, a well-liked and well-respected legislator told a conservative media outlet that a lobbyist offered him $30,000 in campaign donations to change his vote on the Private Option. As the sponsor of the bill, I was outraged and promised to have the guilty lobbyist fired. I emailed the legislator pictures and social media accounts, and even took him the lobbyist registration book to look through together. After all the hours spent scouring, he couldn’t identify the guilty party. I don’t think was lying. Things can happen fast. I just don’t think a lobbyist offered him a bribe. Yet the story is still repeated today as if it were proven true.

All of this happens because healthcare policy is a frustrating thing. The debates are intense, and intensely important. Arkansas Works has many good conservatives fighting for different outcomes. Two people can look at the same problem and disagree about the solution. But in many ways that debate is now over – 95 out of 135 legislators made it law. The constitution lets the other 40 members protest it, but not change it.

I understand the passion of those threatening to block the DHS appropriation. But we shouldn’t reach the point where a few must change their vote to avoid a crisis, all because they drew the line that defines victory in the wrong place. It’s easier, and more accurate, to just agree that votes for general appropriations don’t mean an endorsement of all the policies included.

That would be leniency well respected, instead of abused.