Saturday, February 13, 2016

The War for the Arkansas Legislature

Most voters don't know it, but there has been a battle going on over the Arkansas legislature since 2012. I will outline the two sides in a bit. The catalyst for this battle was the decision by Arkansas Republican legislators to cooperate with Obamacare rather than fight it. This even though many of them were elected on a platform of fighting it. The key (but not only) element of this decision was the move to expand Medicaid so that able-bodied adults received health care coverage. Coverage paid for by a combination of new taxes and costs for the rest of us and an increase in public debt to be paid for by the next generation.

 Why would Republican legislators vote to cooperate with Obamacare when most got elected promising to end it? Money. FEDGOV offered to pay 100% of the bills for the first few years of the program. Hundreds of millions of federal dollars would roll into the state during those years. Hospitals and insurance companies found a way to stand in the middle and get a cut of all of that money, so their lobbies pressed hard to expand Medicaid. Soon, Arkansas is going to have to pick up an increasing share of that load and ever after it won't be a good deal for the state. It was never a good deal for the public (except for the 8.3% who are getting a free ride from the rest of us and the next generation) who have to pay the federal share of the money that "their" state gets to hand to special interests.

 The legislature is now overwhelmingly Republican, and the battle is taking place in the Republican primary. It is not an even battle. The side favoring cooperating with Obamacare has a lop-sided super-majority, but this is in large part due to the fact that they misrepresented their position over the years. First there were the efforts to paint the "Private" option as something other than cooperating with Obamacare. Davy Carter and John Burris among others stuck with that story so insistently that it took a long time for the public to accept the idea that, yes, they really are lying that brazenly.

Both men have since left the legislature, but while the leaders of the deception may be gone, those who went along with it have survived. Those who did not survive were sometimes replaced with those who continued with the deception- like John Cooper of Jonesboro. Others who held strong at first were later induced to flip their vote- like Senator Jane English who infamously changed her vote after then-governor Mike Beebe offered to spend $27 million of taxpayer money in a way approved by English and English alone (what need then a legislative branch?).

 The side that wanted to take the money got a boost when Asa Hutchinson was elected Governor. When the Governor was in the opposite party, some Republican legislators thought taking the money was a bad idea and voted against it. When a Governor of their own party wanted them to take the money, technically he said let's keep taking it while we study the matter but the study was a farce, suddenly these folks wanted to keep taking the money. Their opposition to Medicaid expansion withered when their guy was for it. I should make it clear that Hutchinson himself never lied, as did many of the legislators, regarding what he would do about Medicaid. He made a few terse and vague statements about studying the matter and let people believe what they wanted to believe about what he had said. Then he had his side float SB 96.  Proponents claimed that SB 96 would "end the private option".

The "private" option was done under a temporary waiver from the Obama administration and was going to go away regardless,. So all SB 96 actually did was buy them some time while they came up with a new plan to disguise what they were actually doing- finding a way to take the money while allowing giving them some fig-leaf of cover to claim it was something different than Obamacare's Medicaid expansion. The idea that the SB 96 task force was really going to explore the question of staying in Medicaid was pretty much a farce. The committee did do some serious work on what to do on the part of Medicaid that was not under Obamacare, but what they came up with on the Obamacare part looked exactly like what Dismang tried to float at the end of 2014. So that part was all a show to change the name of the discredited "Private Option" to "Arkansas Works" and change the waivers from set "A" to set "B". That is just fiddling with the details, it did not change the program in principle, or more importantly to Little Rock, the cash flow.

So one side of this war is the Republican Establishment, which includes the Governor, and the President Pro Tem of the Senate, the Speaker of the House, and most members of the legislature. The hospital and insurance lobbies are backing them. Then you have a small group that has bucked the Governor and stuck with what they campaigned on. You can tell who they are by going to this link of the ten worst bills to pass in the 2014 session and checking the vote on the second worst bill, SB 96. The small group that refused to vote for it are the hold outs- I.E. the ones doing what the vast majority of Republican voters actually wanted them to do.

So when you have a political establishment this tone-deaf, one that is going to take the money and hand it out to its "friends" no matter what the grass roots say, its going to build up resistance. Conduit for Action is the most concrete form of this resistance. They have gone around recruiting candidates to run in Republican Primaries against those who foisted Medicaid expansion on us. Many Tea Parties around the state have members who have allied with them.

They were responsible for defeating John Burris when he tried to run for Senate (they recruited Scott Flippo). They were responsible for recruiting Sharon Lloyd to run against Jon Woods after Woods made himself odious to the electorate on a number of issues. Woods decided to retire from the senate rather than face the wrath of primary voters, but the establishment has put up Lance Eads to run in the primary against Lloyd. So the name has changed but don't kid yourself- Eads will vote like Woods, Lloyd will not. Conduit for Action is backing Josh Miller- a legislator who is in the group bucking the Governor in favor of representing his constituents, against a primary challenger. They are backing Representative Donnie Copeland (one of the ten best in the legislature) against the aforementioned Senator Jane English who sold her vote and supported Medicaid expansion. They are also backing former legislator Randy Alexander, who along with Jayna Davis is opposing pro-PO Representative Jana Della Rosa.

 So the Conduit for Action is truly taking action, and ruffling feathers in the process. To me, it is an example of true self-government in action. Instead of every two years just picking among the choices that the party brass arranges for them, these folks are going out and making their own choices. I don't think people are really self-governing if all they do is pick from among choices arranged for them by others- that is not self-government, its kidding yourself that you are "free". The only part I am not sure about is their choice of battlefield.

They choose to fight the Republican establishment within the Republican primary. I think that is the very worst place to fight them, and prefer the Neighbors of Arkansas approach of backing people as independents. If the same money and effort had been put into that as has been put into fighting them in the GOP primary we might see a more lasting result. Fighting them in their own system is tough. Eventually the people we send in will be either co-opted or driven off. Still, I could be wrong. They may be able to pull off these wins and have their folks stay true to their constituents over their party leadership. What I suspect though is that at some point We the People are going to have to build our own political house. We won't have long to wait before the big test of their strategy takes place- the Republican primary is March 1st, and early voting starts next week!

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