Asa Hutchinson and A Diet of Mealy-Mouthed Mush

by Mark Moore

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.   He is not much objecting to what Mike Beebe is doing, or even the way he is doing it, only that it is not his turn to do whatever it is he will do.

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.

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