Arkansas in the dawning of the Trump era

by John Brummett ([email protected]) 1,185 views 

About a month after the presidential election to beat all presidential elections, Gov. Asa Hutchinson sat in his second-floor office at the state Capitol and pondered a question even longer than he normally ponders questions.

Typically he lapses into a couple-of-seconds delay before beginning responses in interviews. It reflects thoughtfulness and caution, or so his friends, relatives and associates have explained.

But this delay dragged a bit beyond the usual, leading the questioner to ask: “Too hard?”

“No,” the governor replied, quickly for once. “It’s just that a thoughtful question deserves a thoughtful answer.”

Here was that question: “If you agree with the common analysis that Arkansas has gone overwhelmingly Republican over the last six years because our state politics have become nationalized [decided on national issues rather than state ones], then what if anything in the way of a policy mandate exists for you and your party on the state level?”

Eventually the governor answered: “Every four years we are defined as a party and a nation in a presidential election. That’s always been the case. In Arkansas, we are over-shadowed somewhat by that over-arching national definition. What you have to do is address local issues in that context but in a more refined way. It remains to be seen to what extent Donald Trump redefines the Republican Party. But, generally, Republicans are for limited government, lower taxes, less regulation and a more conservative approach on social issues. So what you have to do at the state level is energize your base on those principles but in the context of the job you’ve been elected to do.”

Hutchinson praised a television spot run in the last cycle by Republican U.S. Rep. French Hill of Little Rock. Hill’s commercial decried the international threat of terrorism and extolled the role he could play in hampering terrorist organizations by applying skills he possessed as a professional banker while serving on a House finance committee.

“I thought that was a novel ad,” Hutchinson said. “It addressed a national issue, but defined it in the context of the local congressional candidate and the role he could play.”

Hutchinson acknowledged that it’s not easy for a governor — firing up the home conservative base on conservative principles including tax cuts when he must keep state government running on a budget that does not lend itself to quick substantial trimming. By that he meant that, while efficiencies could – and would, he vows — be found, the state government general revenue budget was dominated nearly nine-tenths by broad categories of services that could not go unprovided – public schools, higher education, prisons and human services.

Consider the complications of those: The public schools are protected by a court order saying their money must come off the top in a sufficient sum to assure “adequacy” of educational opportunity.  Hutchinson is seeking to move higher education toward a performance-based budgeting model, but it’s hard to cut funding significantly, or at all, at the outset of something like that — when you need to limit the blow to under-performers in the first year or two and reward good performers with additional money. For prisons, Hutchinson and legislators have imposed criminal justice reforms, and are working on others, that are designed to lower the inmate population and reduce recidivism. But, in the meantime, prisons stay filled. And in regard to human services, Hutchinson is always seeking Medicaid cost reductions, but he remains at the mercy of uncertain federal directives under the new Trump administration as well as political resistance at home when he tries to change the way Medicaid works. Most everyone agrees Medicaid spending must be better controlled. There is wide agreement that some providers have made out like bandits. But hardly anyone wants to do less for the aged, infirm, disabled and needy children.

In other words, practicality limits what even the most confirmed tax-cutting conservative can do in the short term if he intends to behave prudently as governor of Arkansas.

“My sworn responsibility as governor means I can’t quite afford tax cuts of the size favored by some legislators of my party, at least not now,” Hutchinson said.

He had bailed himself out of having to raise highway-user taxes, which would have been a suicidal act for a Republican governor in this environment, by pledging general revenue surpluses that won’t necessarily exist if taxes are cut too deeply and budgets drawn without slack.

Can he keep the base satisfied by giving them what they want but less than they want?

“I think so,” he said. “You just have to be accountable and explain.”

A few days later Hutchinson announced a proposed $50 million tax cut applying not across the board, but exclusively to hundreds of thousands of poor Arkansans paid less than $21,000 a year. It was half the size of the tax cut favored by some in his party, and its targeting of the poor was a decidedly progressive notion at odds with the standard supply-side conservative rhetoric that all income tax rates should be reduced.

The next day, the House of Representatives’ most ardent income tax cutter, Rep. Charlie Collins of Fayetteville, tweeted that he loved his governor but was disappointed the proposed cuts weren’t for all brackets. The Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group that is part of the Koch brothers’ network, issued a statement wishing the governor had proposed high-end income tax cuts as well.

Indeed, there is a certain tightrope nature to the work of a pragmatically conservative Republican governor in a raging Republican state at the dawning of the age of Trump.

And what did Hutchinson make of this force called Trump as a man and president-elect? He’d vigorously resisted Trump’s candidacy early, then made his peace with its inevitability. Then he beheld a president-elect of his party who had won primarily by appealing to white rural conservative voters, who still dominate Arkansas elections, and fashioning a victory margin in Arkansas exceeding that of Mitt Romney, John McCain and George W. Bush – or Asa Hutchinson.

“We’ll just have to watch and wait,” he said. “But I like a lot of what I see.”

If Trump and congressional Republicans repeal Obamacare generally but let Arkansas continue its Medicaid expansion with a block grant giving the state authority to run it as it pleases, then Hutchinson would be happy. He was on his way to Washington the next week to meet with Trump transition officials to ask for that very thing.

So what’s dawning, exactly, inside Arkansas? Are we in a new era of state politics, ending that of progressivism, moderation and modernism begun by Winthrop Rockefeller in 1967 and continuing through Dale Bumpers, David Pryor, Bill Clinton, even Mike Huckabee, and drawing to a close with Hutchinson’s predecessor, Mike Beebe?

“Well, I said in my inaugural address that it’s a new era in Arkansas,” Hutchinson said.

So what’s the new era about?

“You know what it’s about,” he said.

It was better for the governor to say.

And so he said: “It’s interesting that you asked if this new era would be transformational. We’re actually getting ready to announce the opening of a new Office of Transformation here in the governor’s office.”

He announced it the next week. The office – a one-woman operation at the outset – would study and seek to implement recommendations for a more efficient and financially austere state government made primarily by the Arkansas Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank.

The new era, Hutchinson said, would end the automatic year-to-year state agency budgetary increases at “continuing levels.” He said he was in the process of trying to get career employees at the Finance and Administration Department to do budgets differently and show him “some minus signs.”

“For example: I got the budget and I said, ‘Where’s my War Memorial Stadium cut?’”

The reduced expenditure for the stadium was consolidated into a broader and bigger umbrella agency budget. Everything was shown going up. A Republican governor launching a new era of efficiency needed to see something going down.

Hutchinson was asked if he’d accept his questioner’s analysis that, while the previous Arkansas political era was one of progressivism and moderation and economic modernization, the new era he was launching would be one of smaller government and social conservatism but, like the old one, still focused on modernizing, and thus growing, the state economy.

He said that was close enough though he’d put it differently. But he turned perhaps mildly combative at the premise that his emphasis on economic modernization and growth was simply a continuation of, and not different from, the work of a half-dozen or more of the governors immediately preceding him.

“Well, Rockefeller, maybe,” he said. “But name me another governor who worked on it every day and was committed to taking two international trips a year.”

Plainly, Hutchinson’s policy emphasis on improved computer science education along with his ongoing emphasis on prodding international businesses to consider locating in Arkansas represent a major element of how he hopes to define his governorship historically.

And, yes, there are practical considerations in that area as well. They, too, impair Hutchinson’s ability to be the full-bore conservative his base might want him to be.

International business leaders, particularly European ones, tend to look askance at some of the social conservatism common to American Republicans, especially those in the Bible Belt South like Arkansas.

That’s primarily why Hutchinson asked the Legislature to take back a bill it had passed two years ago establishing a religious right to discriminate against gays and lesbians and transgender persons. Hutchinson asked that it be amended to become identical to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a relic of the Bill Clinton presidency, when Democrats were still trying to finesse rather than fully embrace gay rights. Hutchinson surmised that a state wouldn’t appear uncommonly offensive to potential investors if its policies were no different from the federal government’s.

Now socially conservative Republican legislators seem determined to introduce a bill restricting access for transgender persons seeking to enter the public bathrooms with which they identify by gender. That bill caused North Carolina to be subjected to a wide business and tourism boycott. Hutchinson has said we don’t need such a bill.

He says it’s because the issue will be worked out by the new administration and in courts. But he admits to the existence of international economic concerns.

“And I’ll tell you another one – the death penalty,” he said.

European business leaders tend to recoil at what they see as American barbarism in states that carry out executions. The European drug industry wants no part of that process.

What can or would Hutchinson do about that?

“Nothing,” he said, “other than to say it’s the law and that I am sworn to faithfully executive the duties of the office.”

Whither, then, Arkansas Democrats, after their six-year freefall from strong majority status in 2010 to pitiable and ever-dwindling relevance in 2017? They have but 24 members left in the 100-member House, and but nine members in the 35-member Senate.

Interviews with leaders of the anemic party indicate they have a two-pronged strategy.

One prong is to try to re-establish an economic connection with rural votes, primarily in the legislative context by leveraging the 10-member contingent they managed to consolidate on the 20-member House Revenue and Taxation Committee to influence tax policy.

As recently as 2010, Arkansas Democrats offered a highly popular governor – Beebe – who got elected by talking of his birth in a rural tar-paper shack to a single mom and promising to take the sales tax down on groceries to help poor people.

By 2016, some Democrats complain, the state party committee was passing only one resolution all year – that of support for Planned Parenthood against the loss of Medicaid funding. These Democrats insist they don’t want to abandon the pro-choice and gay rights causes. They argue instead that the state party ought also to pass resolutions on economic issues, such as the Hutchinson administration’s purge of tens of thousands of Medicaid expansion enrollees based on faulty software and 10-day notices that recipients didn’t receive until the 10 days were nearly expired.

“I’d be out of line if I said I didn’t appreciate the governor’s focus” on low-income tax cuts, Rep. Michael John Gray of Augusta, head of the House Democratic caucus, said. “But it doesn’t really change our strategy. I want to dig into what he’s proposing because I’m not sure but that some of those people on the low end aren’t already exempt from the state income tax. And I want to dig into those restorations of cuts to pay for the military veterans’ exemption. We’re still interested in seeing if we can’t target these cuts a little better, maybe with something like Rep. [Greg] Leding’s bill to grant a credit to school teachers spending their own money on their classroom needs, or maybe a child care tax credit.”

Rep. Clarke Tucker of Little Rock said Arkansas Democrats had somehow not appeared as sensitive as they should have appeared to the voters’ clear message about “the economic pain people were feeling.” He said the Democratic caucus could best proceed by keeping that message ever in mind as issues arise. He figured a pre-designed Democratic caucus strategy for the legislative session would be less appropriate and effective than a case-by-case sensitivity.

The second prong calls for legislative Democrats to sit back and watch the fight likely to erupt between pragmatic Republicans and hard-right Republicans, the latter of whom, Gray said, seem at times to want to outdo each other in the extent to which they seek to impose religion on government, or restrict voting rights, or advance unconstitutional anti-abortion bills, or punish undocumented immigrants.

As those schisms likely arise among Republicans, legislative Democrats speculate that it may occasionally require the votes of their pitiably declining caucus to reach the requisite 51 votes, or 75, to pass legislation.

That might apply to income tax cuts. A conceivable coalition could find legislative Democrats siding generally with Hutchinson and his GOP followers on low-end income tax cuts, but insisting on combining them with a couple of targeted cuts they prefer. That would outnumber the harder-right Republicans wanting bigger income tax cuts applying to higher incomes.

Such a deal with Democrats might cause Hutchinson’s rightward base to give him a little more heartburn than normal. It might make the gubernatorial tightrope wobble. It might cause the governor to delay another a second or two his response to the next press inquiry.

But those probably are the essential perils of responsible stewardship in a wholly nationalized and crimson-ized state at the dawning of this wild new Trumpian frontier.

Editor’s note: The author of this article is a regular columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.