Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Deconstructing Nate Bell on Ballot Laws

Last month, I reported to you that Neighbors of Arkansas, a group of which I am a member, was suing the state of Arkansas for an outrageous change to the ballot access laws for independents.

The sole co-sponsor of the bill changing the law was Nate Bell of Mena, the socially conservative, fiscally enigmatic Republican who voted to fund Medicaid expansion in Arkansas under Obamacare so that he could stop it later, or some such nonsense.   Bell and I have also clashed on the use of debt to fund highway maintenance. Steve Brawner of the Arkansas News Service did a story on the suit, and here is how he describes Bell's thinking on the matter...

Bell said the change in the signature deadline was made to create “an equal footing with regard to timetable,” not to try to burden independent candidates. When independents had until May 1 to turn in their signatures, that meant party candidates weren’t really sure about the election landscape until shortly before the party primary. That affected fundraising, volunteer recruitment and other activities, he said.
Bell, who once was elected constable as an independent, argued that it’s actually easier to collect signatures in the winter because people are more likely to be home. Besides, the best way to collect signatures is by finding large groups of people, not walking door to door.
“The ones who are complaining about it being a barrier are the same candidates who frankly aren’t going to be competitive in the election,” he said.
So shifting the deadline by which independent candidates must turn in their petition signatures from the delightful Spring months of March, April and May to the cold and early-dark months of December, January, and February was not trying to make a burden for independent candidates?   Last cycle, seven independent candidates for the state legislature qualified for the ballot.  This year, only one did.  Does anyone reading this article believe that the people of Arkansas are seven times more satisfied with the two-party system than they were two years ago?  A more likely explanation is that the Dead of Winter signature collection period makes it much harder for independents to get on the ballot, and basically impossible to file at the last minute.

Bell's idea of an "equal footing with regards to time table" is that Republicans and Democrats can go decide to file at the last minute based on what they see, while independents must act weeks or really months in advance gathering the signatures they will need to file.  Remember, the real deciding vote for the so-called Private Option, if it was not Bell himself, was Rep. Kim Hammer, another bait and switch Republican who voted against the "Private Option" until the filing period to run against him was closed, then switched his vote.

And don't you just love this contention: "When independents had until May 1 to turn in their signatures, that meant party candidates weren’t really sure about the election landscape until shortly before the party primary. That affected fundraising, volunteer recruitment and other activities."

Am I the only one who sees that as basically saying he wanted the law changed because it was more convenient for the establishment party politicians?  But what does it even mean?  Does it mean that politicians did not know how to change their image based on who they were running against?

Also, it belies the statement that he wanted an "equal footing with regard to time table".  Say there are two or more republicans in a primary, and two or more Democrats, and the vote to determine who will face who is held on May 20th.   When they won't know the Democrat or Republican landscape until May 20th then even giving the independents until May 1 does not give them an "equal footing" as regards to time table.  And now that unequal footing is made even more unequal because Bell's bill has moved  the date for independents and independents alone back to early March.  His change does not put anything on an equal footing.  Rather, it exaggerates the already skewed law which says that Independents have to show their hands first.

I will let the readers who suffered through this most recent Winter judge whether Bell is talking sense when he claims that collecting signatures is easier in the Winter than the Spring.  His claim about 'the best way to gather signatures isn't door-to-door' may or may not be true in Mena, where districts are huge due to sparse populations.  Those doors are usually far apart, and any crowd is likely to have your voters in it.  But none of that applies to more populated districts where people from three or four legislative districts may use the same post office or be in any crowd you see.  You can't be sure the voter is in the right district unless you go door-to-door, and a lot of doors are close together.  Bell may just be taking what he has found to be true for him and assuming it universally applies to everybody.  It is hard to be a fair person when one can't imagine one's self in the other person's shoes.

As for his last comment, about the people complaining not being the ones who can win anyway, I was complaining so I guess it was aimed at me.   I think we should just have ballot access laws which allow citizens equal access to the ballot regardless of how they choose to run and then let the voters decide who does or does not have a chance.  I was at about 39% in 2012 as an independent and I think the disgust with the two-party system which has mismanaged the country is worse now than then.  I'd like a chance to convince 6% of the voters to change their vote, resulting in a 12% swing and a victory, regardless of who Nate Bell thinks is or is not a credible candidate.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Strong Tea in Garland County

What should a TEA Party be?  What is its function?  Some think they should not exist at all.   Some think it should be a cheerleading section for the Republican Party.   Others feel it should serve to help the right kind of candidates win Republican primaries.  And then there is the Garland County TEA Party.    What is happening there is very interesting, and in my opinion should serve as both an inspiration and a model for other groups throughout the state, and beyond.

Elements of the Garland County Tea Party helped former Hot Springs police Captain Mike McCormack get on the ballot for Garland County Sheriff- as an Independent.  Not only that, but the sole person who filed for the state legislature as an independent this year is State Senate Candidate George Pritchard, a former Garland County Justice of the Peace.   Pritchard was able to utilize the network and expertise developed from getting McCormack on the ballot to get the signatures needed to launch his own candidacy.   I spoke with Reggie Cowan, a board member of the Garland County Tea Party about their approach and how they see their own role in the public debate.

Most small towns in the state have city councilmen and mayors who file as independents.   For other offices, Arkansas has had independent candidates before, but not winning candidates.  That changed two years ago when Robert Akin was elected Drew County Judge as an Independent.  Akin tapped into a growing discontent with both parties.  Cowan says that McCormack considered all of his options, and decided that Sheriff is not a policy-driven office.   It's an office where honesty and impartiality should be paramount.  He decided he preferred to run with a non-partisan label even though he was recruited to jump into the GOP primary.

Although there is a Democrat in the race, and four are vying for the spot on the Republican side, Cowan thinks McCormack can get votes from supporters of both parties as well as those who don't identify with a party.  There have been independent candidates before, but they have rarely been good candidates.  Maybe its not the independent label that is the loser in Arkansas politics, but rather the sort of person who usually ran under that label in the past.   They were lone wolves, not backed by local grassroots groups.   Cowan sees McCormack as a good candidate.

Can McCormack win a three way race?  Akin did in Drew County. Remember, in County races they have run-off elections if no one gets over 50% of the vote.  That is going to leave people free to vote their conscience.  They won't have to vote for one major party candidate or the other out of fear of "splitting the vote."  They can vote for who they want in the first round and if they don't make it to the run off then vote for the least-worst alternative there.   That's all the more reason to have run-offs for all elections, preferably instant run-offs, but that's another story.

Most people see the TEA Party as hyper-partisan, but here is a case where they are helping someone run for what should be a non-partisan office in a non-partisan manner.  And the person they recruited is hardly the most right-wing they could find, rather, he's one of the best qualified they could find.

That brings us to the other race, State Senate.  Unlike the Sheriff's race, there is an incumbent.  Sen. Bill Sample is a Republican, but one who loves big government.  Sample checked in at #8 on the Arkansas Watch list of "Ten Worst Legislators in the State of Arkansas."   Garland County has tilted Republican, but much of that comes from the crony-capitalist wing of the GOP.  That's how Sample got in to start with.  There is no Democrat on the ballot to challenge Sample.

Cowan and other members of the Garland County Tea Party recruited former Garland County Justice of the Peace George Pritchett to run against Sample as an Independent.   Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that they recruited Pritchett and he considered all his options.   He choose to run as an Independent, and they backed him regardless of his choice.    The $7,500 filing fee to run for state senate as a Republican was definitely a factor. Why rush to get all that money when it could just go to your opponent's campaign should you lose what is likely to be a slanted party primary campaign?   Add to it that Sample already has an opponent in the GOP Primary, Jerry Neal.

It was a smaller area TEA Party that courted Neal, but I like the result.   Crony-capitalist Republican Sample gets challenged in the primary and in the general election.   Men like that may raise a lot of money from special interests by voting for big government, but if activists would just follow this recipe then they would not get to keep it.  Hit them in the primary with a primary challenger, then hit them again in the general with a grass-roots backed independent.

So we see that in both cases the candidates choose to run under an independent label not out of necessity, but out choice.   I think we are going to see more of that, as a reflection of the increasing disgust many Americans feel towards both DC-based political clubs.   The TEA Parties can serve to back candidates who run for offices which are not policy-centric and thus ought to be non-partisan, like Sheriff, and they can find candidates to supplement when the two-party system breaks down and fails to provide good candidates- as is now the norm.

Those are the TEA Parties I see surviving, and thriving.   The ones on track for extinction are those who are redundant cheerleaders for one half of a two-party system which has obviously failed America.

Asa Hutchinson and a Diet of Mealy-Mouthed Mush

The state legislature has just finished a tough battle over whether or not to expand Medicaid under the so-called "Private Option".   This program combines some of the worst elements of Crony Capitalism and Obamacare all in one ultimately unaffordable package.   The legislature, after much deal-making and arm-twisting by Governor Beebe, barely scraped up the super-majority required to fund the measure.

Asa Hutchinson is considered to be the establishment favorite to win the Republican nomination for Governor.  Hutchinson was remarkably recalcitrant during the debate over the private option.  His presumed Democratic opponent, Mike Ross, seemed frustrated by Hutchinson's evasive statements on the issue.   His opponent in the Republican primary, Curtis Coleman, is staunchly opposed to the so-called "Private Option" and has tried to make hay out of Hutchinson's refusal to take a strong stand on the issue.

"There is only one Governor at a time" Hutchinson said in response to questions as to why he was not more forthright on the issue.   That sentence bothers me just as much as his failure in general to take a strong stand about Medicaid expansion.  It indicates that he is failing to take a strong stand not out of some deep respect for the legislature,  or out of concern about executive over-reach.  Rather, it hints that he is merely waiting his turn to use the same unsavory strong-arm tactics that Mike Beebe used to get his way on the issue.

The legislature has become almost irrelevant in the last 40 years as power has shifted to the courts and the Executive Branch.  I don't believe this is an accident.  Elites are opposed to rule by the people, and the Legislature is known as "The People's Branch".   At least it was intended that way.  But citizens hold it in low regard these days, because they understand that it does not represent them.   Instead, members increasingly represent the desires of party HQ in D.C., or the chief executive if he is of their party.  The Democrats in the legislature marched in lock-step with Beebe.  They did not represent their "constituents" at all.  They represented him.

The solution is to quit routing our legislative candidates through the same DC-based parties as our executive branch candidates, preferably electing them as independents, so that they can once again be a check and a balance on over-reaching executives instead of their enablers, but I digress somewhat.  This article is mostly about executive over-reach and only consequently about how we elect our legislature.

Once upon a time, laws were named for the members of the legislature who originally sponsored the bill.   The very name "Obamacare" shows how the power has shifted to the Executive.  And if Obama can get no bill through because the other party holds too many seats, he is now threatening to act without legislative approval.  He can get away with this because almost half of each house is comprised of his own party members who will not impeach or convict him no matter what.  Its like a mafia-style family.  There is no way an executive could get away with that if legislators were independents or members of different parties than the executive.   Again, the result is to make the legislature mostly irrelevant.

The genius of our Arkansas founders is that they produced a constitution which required a legislative super-majority to pass appropriations.   This made, for a while during the fiscal session, the legislature in Arkansas relevant again.  If they were really determined to take the heat, a determined group of legislators could stop government expansion.  

To counter this, Mike Beebe took extreme measures.  Not only did he threaten, he bribed.  Senator Jane English sold her vote in exchange for Beebe changing the way $24 million dollars in tax money was spent.  Several million dollars of this money came from general revenues and a "rainy day" fund.  In other words, the legislature as a whole did not approve of moving this money.

Beebe also with-held critical information from the legislature.  Although it would have saved billions in the long run to say "no" to Medicaid expansion, in the short term, looking only at state dollars and not overall-taxpayer dollars, it would cost $89 million more to say "no" to Medicaid expansion.   Beebe kept demanding that those who opposed expanding Medicaid tell him where this $89 million would come from.  What programs would they cut?  What taxes would they raise?

Two days after they voted to expand Medicaid, his administration revealed that there was a $116 million dollars in excess revenue available!   They had the money to fill the supposed funding gap all along, but he treated the legislature like mushrooms.  Beebe has always treated the legislature, and by extension the citizens they are supposed to represent, with this sort of contempt.

Here, at last, is my point. I don't object to Asa Hutchinson staying out of the fight, if he was staying our for the right reasons.  I am OK with a mild-mannered executive branch.  We need a lot more of that to return to the sort of government our founders intended.   If Asa Hutchinson wants to defer to the legislature, then that's a good thing.  If he wants to be the kind of chief executive who believes they are simply there to Execute the laws which the legislature passes rather than give the legislature bills and demand that they rubber-stamp them, then I approve.  The trouble is, I doubt that this is the real reason for his "judicious" approach to Medicaid Expansion.

Even at that, there would have been nothing wrong with him making a strong statement as to his policy preference on the issue.  What I would object to strenuously, especially since  he basically "sat out" the battle of the century, was if once he got in office he resorted to the same sort of unseemly tactics employed by Beebe to shoe-horn this bill through the The People's Branch even though the people themselves were not in favor of it.  

"There is only one Governor at a time" is no reason to stay out of the battle, especially if you are going to be the one who has to clean up the mess that your predecessor is making.  And the voters deserve to know what kind of Governor he intends to be.   Does he strongly favor X, oppose X, or will he leave X and other law-making matters mostly up to the legislature?   And let's go beyond the policy, what about the tactics Beebe used to get his favored policy passed?

Will Hutchinson resort to cutting deals with individual legislators on how public funds are spent, cutting out the rest of the legislature, in exchange for votes on unrelated matters, as Beebe did with English? In other words, will he or will he not honor "The Martin Doctrine" as it regards reaching compromise on legislative items? Will he favor a policy of keeping the legislature in the dark as to the state budget's true condition, as Beebe has done?  Will he threaten legislative members as Beebe has done?   People deserve to know not only where he stands on policy, but on procedure and ethical conduct in office.   Right now, I don't think we know any of that.

Monday, March 03, 2014

More Evidence Higher Ed is Insanely Over-Funded In Arkansas

I have maintained for years that higher education is extremely over-funded in Arkansas.   Heavy subsidies of higher education does not "create jobs" in this state, because labor is mobile.  Rather, when a state has a higher-ed system grossly disproportionate to the size of its underlying existing real economy higher ed is a subsidy from the taxpayers of that state to the economies of other states where the students must go to find work.   Or those students graduate and then take a job around here which does not require a college degree, in which case the higher ed represents of massive misallocation of resources.

Now I have a study whose results back me up, even though its is not what it is trying to do.  The article is yet another attempt to bleed the taxpayers for more higher-ed money.  It claims that if current trends in higher-ed funding continue, then within a certain number of years in one state after another the states will provide zero dollars for higher ed.  Really all they are doing is taking a trend where the most wild-eyed over-spending for higher ed is being ratcheted back a notch and extrapolating that trend to absurd degrees to get their chart.  In Arkansas, and in many other states I suspect, most if not all of the "reductions" in spending are due to falling revenues from lottery proceeds spent on education. But the chart still shows who the outlier is- Arkansas.

Take a look for yourself, it is about a third of the way down and to the right on this link.  Using their unsound extrapolation of data, 47 states will quit funding higher ed completely by the year 2140.  Three states will continue to fund it. Ten years later, one of those three, Georgia, will quit funding it. For the next 45 years, only two states will fund higher-ed until in 2194 New Mexico's subsidies to higher ed would cease.  For the next 73 years, only one state would be subsidizing higher-ed- Arkansas.

Again, the conclusions about how far the reductions would go are silly, but the chart and data are still useful for showing how ridiculously out-of whack our state is compared to the rest of the nation on higher ed.   If lavishing grotesque amounts of tax dollars on higher ed really was some kind of key to prosperity, one would think we would be the richest state in the union instead of one of the poorest.

One trouble may be that there is no major party in this state which acts as any kind of restraint for higher ed spending.    The Democrats want to spend money on it, but so do many of the Republicans who have big ideas about "work force education" (a planned economy with respect to labor inputs as opposed to a free market).   Many big republican legislators are paid by colleges, such as Gilbert Baker and now Johnny Key.   There is no party of no when it comes to higher ed spending in this state, and it shows.