Editor’s note: Dustin McDaniel is a legal analyst for Talk Business & Politics. He is a partner at McDaniel Richardson and Calhoun in Little Rock and served as Democratic Attorney General of Arkansas from 2007-2015. Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author. They may not represent the opinion of the owners of Talk Business & Politics.
John Brummett was harsh on the Democratic caucus in Sunday’s Democrat Gazette. He believes politics should be removed from the Obamacare discussion. That is a novel and noble idea. I agree with it wholeheartedly. I also believe I should buy my daughter a unicorn for her birthday.
At the risk of costing him even more support among his base, I’ll join John Brummett in praising Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s efforts to save the state’s budget, and thus our economy, from calamity at the hands of a small minority within his own party. His only problem at this point is politics. Serious politics.
The governor clearly is using every tool in his toolbox to pass an appropriation to fund the Department of Human Services, which would include authority to administer Medicaid. Presumably, he has the votes in the House of Representatives, but 10 hold outs, tea party senators have backed themselves and the rest of the state into a corner with their “no” votes.
The Arkansas Senate has 35 members. With 25 affirmative votes, that is a 71% majority. By any definition of representative democracy in which the concept of “majority rules” holds any validity, that is a solid majority. However, under our constitution, to spend any money, it takes a 75% vote of both houses. In other words, it takes two more senators to enable the will of the overwhelming majority and the governor.
The political class calls them “The Ten.” Legislators know, there is always cover in numbers. This number, ten, however, is misleading. The governor only needs two additional votes to reach the magic threshold. So that means each individual member of “The Ten” has been courted, threatened, begged, and otherwise pressured to simply vote for an agency budget, even if he or she does not entirely agree with the agency’s mission.
That’s not novel. No legislator agrees with 100% of any governor’s administration of any agency. Legislators “hold” budgets all the time as an effort to apply pressure – but they don’t shut down the agency.
So why do so here? One word: Obamacare (a/k/a Politics.) Medicaid expansion is a direct result of Obamacare. It has proven to be effective and good economic policy and has given health insurance to 267,000 Arkansans. It has proven to be a saving grace for rural hospitals. It has freed up tens of millions from the budget, which were used to fund tax cuts as promised by the governor and his first session. In short, Medicaid expansion in Arkansas has proven to be very good for us. However, The Ten swore that they would oppose all vestiges of Obamacare, no matter how good it is.
Now, members of The Ten, like Sen. Bart Hester, are reportedly taking heat from some of the most powerful powerful Republican business forces in the state imploring him to see reason.
That has apparently been effective because the word from the governor now is that at least two senators are willing to fund Obamacare, so long as it doesn’t look like they’re funding Obamacare. If they can go home and – dare I say it – lie to their primary constituents should they receive a challenge from their right (and, yes, it is possible even still to come from their right), then they’ll do it. But only under those circumstances. A straight-up admission that they fought the good, principled fight and now it is over is simply not an acceptable way to handle it.
Stories around the capitol of Governor Clinton sending aides to lock a senator in the bathroom or wheeling one off the senate floor with a fake heart attack so that they could “involuntarily miss” the opportunity to vote “no” on tax increases are legendary. There are many ways governors got senators to acquiesce to doing the right thing without the senators admitting defeat or retreat. Asa has just come up with a new one. A good one. One to be remembered and used in the right context. Is this it? Some aren’t so sure.
After one day (just one day) in session, the governor proposed a scheme by which the majority would vote the will of the minority and pass a bill that says no money can be spent on Obamacare. He would then use his line-item veto to scratch that language, and thus have the authority to fund Obamacare. All concerned would have been included in the charade from the beginning, of course.
Two big problems: Governor Clinton and the late Senator Knox Nelson did not have Twitter to contend with. There’s no such thing as a secret scheme anymore. Also, even in the old days, the plans were designed to get the minority to relent to the majority, not the other way around.
Asking the majority to all vote against what they so fundamentally believe so as to give the governor the opportunity to veto what they have done and presumably get to where they all want to go in the end is a big ask.
Furthermore, this ask came on the second day of the fiscal session. Other states wrestle with tough issues for weeks and months in open session. Not us. Arkansans like to see legislation done quickly, quietly and in the back room. But to give up on the process entirely after only 24 hours might be a bit much … even for us.
Then something unexpected happened: the Democrats stood on principle and said that the minority (just two of The Ten, really) should yield to the majority rather than the other way around. They rejected the scheme. That’s a reasonable and principled stand – and it’s not without political reality either.
The Ten can’t vote for providing health care and saving the budget based on their political calculus. So how can the Democrats be asked to vote against health care and saving the budget and ignore their own political calculus? Their only explanation to their own voters would have to be: “Yes, I voted to take away your health insurance and kill the budget, but I didn’t mean it. Asa promised he wouldn’t let anything bad happen as a result of my vote. It was a trick, you see? It worked, too. Don’t you see? Please don’t vote for my primary opponent.”
It may come to that. If it does, I support the Democrats for standing with the Governor to save us from disaster. However, before taking that path, perhaps we should stay on The Ten a while longer. I’m told a couple have already declared that they no longer want the cheese … they just want out of the trap.
If we could just cancel the 2018 Republican and Democratic primaries, we could take politics out of this whole Obamacare thing and get this railroad running back on time.
I would write more, but I have to go back to online unicorn shopping.