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Slapstick with Ross, Asa and other oddballs

The comedy hits just keep coming in the governor’s race.

Just yesterday:

–Mike Ross said Asa Hutchinson may be the only lawyer in the history of the state to lose a trial with his brother on the jury, and Asa said that was snarky

–Ross assailed Hutchinson for being one of the House prosecutors in the Bill Clinton impeachment and putting his own partisanship over supporting a governor from Arkansas, as if the coincidence of birthplace had anything to do with morality or decency or law.

–A curious character seeking the Republican gubernatorial nomination, Curtis Coleman, whom I previously believed mistakenly to be the football coach at UAPB, unveiled a plan to cut state general revenue nearly in half with deep income tax cuts over eight years.

–Coleman said this tax cut should be our top priority, even higher than . . . well, educating our children.

–Then Coleman put out a followup statement that, oops, his plan would actually raise taxes on the poorest, and that he didn’t mean to do that and would fix it. Which was odd. Republicans favor lower taxes on the wealthy and higher burdens on poor people.

–Hutchinson put out a statement saying, well, uh, we really need to emphasize education. And the Ross campaign declined to respond to this Coleman character, perhaps wondering why the football coach at UAPB was proposing a tax plan.

–Dr. Lynette Bryant, surprise opponent of Ross in the Democratic primary, finally got up that website, the one she said she wanted to unveil before she entertained any questions from reporters. It’s pictures, mostly, including shots of her with Republican U.S. Sen. John Boozman and the Republican Huckabees, Mike and Janet. Odd.

So you’re up to date until the next one-liner or pratfall or pie in the face.

Asa calls, chortles, challenges, converses

Asa Hutchinson called this morning to chortle, challenge and converse on the matter of Mike Ross’s tax plan, and we covered several points that I want to share.

Let’s get this out of the way: Hutchinson said he had met with officials of the Finance and Administration Department on the Beebe administration assertion he had publicly questioned — that ending the private option would leave an $89 million hole in the state budget — and, well, now is willing to accept that number or something in that vicinity as reasonable guesswork for budgeting purposes.

Meantime, he remains in the position of neutrally studying the private option, which is to say he still has no position.

A fully developed view of the issue, he said, needs to look long-term both to the eventual 10 percent cost to the state and the effect on existing Medicaid policy if the private option is scrubbed. He has not personally satisfied himself on those matters, he says.

He did admit that ending the private option — and producing that budget hole the amount of which he is no longer actively questioning — has potential implications for his ability to cut middle-class taxes by $100 million in his first year as governor.

But he said his cut could still be afforded through the existing surplus, which is an entirely different debate for which I can refer you to my column this morning.

Now, about Ross’s plan:

1. Hutchinson chortled that I have had to admit today on Twitter something I should have caught previously, which is that Ross used bogus math in saying his eventual $575 million income tax cut was barely half the size of Mike Beebe’s more than trillion-dollar cut in grocery taxes.

Ross’s cut, if ever made fully, would be in one year, and would recur year-after-year, while Beebe’s grocery tax amount as cited by Ross is a cumulative one that adds one year’s cut on top of another year’s.

2. Hutchinson challenged Ross’s tax plan on so many conflicting or cumulative grounds — that it would take too much money out of the treasury for higher education and other things, and that it was a “hollow promise” that would never be kept and that it provided no tax-relief for the “job-creating” incomes in excess of $75,000 — that I asked him to please pick one.

He obliged, picking the “hollow promise,” meaning that Ross would never actually cut all those taxes to the tune of $575 million a year every year.

“If you really believed he was going to do it, a liberal like you would be screaming to high heaven,” Hutchinson said.

I’m a moderate. I’m a pragmatist who understands tax cuts are coming to the state Treasury.

I’m a pragmatist who squeals more at present about a candidate’s unwillingness to stand up for the private option and its savings while proposing to take a hundred-million dollars all at once out of the treasury.

And I like Ross’s underlying purpose of modernizing our antiquated and regressive income tax brackets.

But, yeah, $575 million in someday-money is a lot of someday-money.

Should be a good governor’s race. I’ll try to keep up with it for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

High drama on private option? Line in sand by Democrats?

With Sen. Missy Irvin of Mountain View continuing to say it’s not all up to her and that she is a “no” on re-upping the private option for which she fashioned an all-about-me dramatic “aye” vote late in the regular session — though it apparently is indeed all about her — I’ve had very recent discussions with insiders suggesting the prospect for high drama in the fiscal session beginning Feb. 11.

This is insiderly and procedural, but it raises the possibility of high-stakes brinksmanship, which sounds positively Washingtonian.

To begin: The Medicaid appropriation to be introduced in the fiscal session is a mere continuation of the existing Medicaid appropriation. This it contains the hundred-percent federal money for the expanded population under the private option.

Presumably, the Republican minority seeking to obstruct continued existence of the successful and popular program — nine or so voters in the Senate and 25 or so in the House — would need to excise the private option money from the appropriation, and then, by the requisite three-fourths vote, pass old Medicaid with the federal-state match for a tiny segment of the very poorest.

That would require amending the continuing-level appropriation with special language in the Special Language Subcommittee of the Joint Budget Committee. The special language would affirmatively excise the private option money.

Amending the measure that way would require only a majority vote, but I don’t readily see how a narrow extremist minority barely able to stop a three-fourths vote could be expected to get a simple majority vote to take out the program that nearly three-fourths of the Legislature favors.

By that scenario, the appropriation would proceed to the chamber floors in full private option form, starting in the Senate because the House went first last time and wants the Senate to go first this time. And Irvin votes no and we’re stuck.

Presumably, then, faced with that logjam, legislators would concede to the tragic reality of the know-nothing obstructionist minority and amend the measure to take out the private option money to get something passed and get on home.

But now get this: There are some infant discussions — just that, at this point — that the Democratic caucuses of the House and the Senate might declare preemptively that they will vote only for a Medicaid appropriation containing the private option.

That’s 48 votes in the House and 13 in the Senate and plenty to prevent a three-fourths majority.

High drama. Private option or no Medicaid at all. Private option or we go home without any appropriation at all for Medicaid.

Here’s the question:

Is that politically advantageous high ground for these Democrats, drawing a line in the sand for an innovative national program for the working poor and for hospitals and for the state budget’s money for prisons and higher education?  Didn’t that recent Talk Business-Hendrix College poll show a strong plurality of respondents favoring the continuation of the private option?

Or is it political quicksand for Democrats, introducing Washington-style apocalyptic politics like that? Would they get blamed for dysfunction rather than nobility?

That’s such a good question. I think I know the answer. But let’s let the idea percolate for a bit while we think on it a little longer.

 

 

 

Private option looking great except politically

There are developments regarding the state’s innovative Medicaid private option — developments beyond the potentially tragic political signals sent by the Jonesboro area in the special election Tuesday.

First: The state has compiled the demographics on the tens of thousands of persons below 138 percent of poverty who have been enrolled so far, and they show most of them are younger.

That is the full opposite of the state and nationwide experience in the non-Medicaid health care exchange — where few young people have enrolled so far, but plenty of folks my age have, leading to concerns about “adverse selection” and “death spirals” by which Obamacare rates might be expected to explode to unaffordable levels,  causing the entire reform to collapse under its own weight.

The remarkable thing in Arkansas, then, is that we are using our federal Medicaid expansion money to deliver poor folks to private insurance and produce a more actuarial credible risk pool for Blue Cross and Qual Choice. Our rates conceivably — conceivably — could remain at or near current levels in the second year if not beyond.

That is to say — just to put it in clear individual terms — that my own Obamacare options to be unveiled in October might remain relatively reasonable thanks totally to our state’s private option.

Furthermore, the preponderance of younger folks in this PO pool means they’ll pay relatively lower premiums — to the extent, it seems, that we are going to tap less federal money than previously estimated.

All of that is to say our private option is unfolding as a smashing success just in time for know-nothings to kill it in the budget session beginning Feb. 10.

Second: The Joint Public Health Committee will meet at 3 p.m. today to hear the state’s star consultant, former Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt, a Republican, testify about the personal health saving account component of the private option on which Sen. Missy Irvin of Mountain View insisted on the next-to-last day of the session before casting her vote.

I am advised to expect a bold proposal. It will require getting the federal government to approve an amendment to the waiver by which we’ve done the private option. It ought to be enough to hold Irvin’s vote.

Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux is quoted today as worrying about several more senators than Irvin.

One Republican legislator favoring the private option told me the only way it survives in February is if something really conservative is put into it.

Darr’s two minds, and the one he’ll follow

My best reading is that Mark Darr is currently of two minds and goes back and forth between these minds with great speed and dexterity and frustration.

One mind: Yes, I made errors and I was wrong. But, darnit, it’s not serious thievery and I could be given a hall pass to make amends except for this raw political partisanship that is at work against me. The best thing I can do is be strong and take a stand against this criminalization of politics. To resign would be to concede to that criminalization of politics, even encourage those in my party who tell me they resent what’s being done to me and will counterattack some Democrat for retribution.

The other mind: My resignation is the practical thing. It would save the state the nonsense of distracting impeachment. It would relieve those of my party of whatever burden my predicament places on them. What I should do is put my own interests aside and gracefully bow out. I should do so with a statement declaring my innocence of truly impeachable offense, but couching my action as a personal sacrifice for the sake of our state, and pleading with those of both sides to cease and desist this kind of politics of personal destruction.

I think he bounced from one mind to the other yesterday.

I believe he will bear the inconvenience of regretting following either mind, of taking either action, but will choose, at some point soon, to offer himself in sacrifice and resign while making that plea for a less toxic political climate.

It’s the better of bad options, and I think he knows that.

As soon as he takes it, he’s going to be mad at himself. But that’s the nature of his dilemma. A little time away with family might be good.

 

A Brummett Christmas. It was 1959 . . .

A request poured in that I rerun a Christmas column of years past, something about my dad.

But I don’t have a Christmas Day column this year and I’m wondering if the request confused a childhood Christmas remembrance with any of a half-dozen tributes I’ve made to the late J.T. over these decades of columnizing.

So I thought I would adapt for the blog the column of 15 years ago or so about the Christmas of 1959 in the little four-room house on Arch Street Pike due south of Little Rock nearly to Baseline Road.

It was a happy time. I was 5, 6 and 7 when we lived in that humble house, and those were vividly formative years.

I spent days studying the busy highway and memorizing the makes and models of the big-engined cars, the Chevys of 55, 56 and 57, the Fords, the Mercurys and the Pontiacs.

These were years my dad would always recall as his happiest. He singularly ran a rural garbage route by morning, worked at the Nabisco cookie-loading warehouse by night, and, in between, raised hogs and chickens. He never had so much money, he would recall years later, lamenting that the workload had proved too great and he’d given up the garbage business.

But he had some money for once, enough to grace our driveway with a gray-and-white 1955 Pontiac, which, upon purchase, he took screaming down the southern reaches of Arch Street at 95 miles an hour while mom pleaded with him to slow because “you’ve got those kids in the car,” meaning me and my younger sister.

Dad bought some boxing gloves and I knocked the neighbor kid plumb off the porch. J.T. was proud enough to tell about it over and over.

One afternoon while dad was working, of course, I was climbing along a clothes line and fell and gashed my skull on the corner of a wash tub. Mom and the neighbor lady wrapped it and I went on about my business — rendered by the blow the unique liberal in our Church of Christ clan.

I ran upon a rattlesnake coiled and noisy in the curve of the trail to the hogs, and my mom chopped it to near-death. A tarantula came up in the yard and my sister was coaxing it closer, calling it “birdie, birdie,” before my mom realized the situation. I had my tonsils taken out and came to post-operative consciousness in a children’s ward with the Three Stooges playing and I laughed so hard I wound up throwing up blood that night and nearly dying.

Good times.

So I wrote once about that Christmas Eve of ’59, when I’d just turned 6.

Excited, I lay half-asleep in the pre-dawn hours. Perhaps it was the noise that awakened me. A tent was being set up for me in the living room, by a Santa Claus who said a curse word or two over the project, my mother joked the next morning.

It occurred to me that Santa wouldn’t curse, but that a certain J.T., 15 years removed from Marine infantry duty on Okinawa, was bad about that.

What happened, as I wrote in that column, was that I could have sworn that, as I lay there half awake, I could feel the presence and weight of Santa Claus as he sat on the the foot of my bed. I was entirely too shy to sit up and actually confront him, but I could feel him there as sure as the world, and was as comforted as unnerved.

I wrote that this represented the power of a child’s imagination, and thus actually was Santa in a way, thus the magical spirit and essence of the holiday.

So a friend called that morning and said what I’d written had been so beautiful, explaining in such a clever way that it had been my dad sitting there at the foot of the bed, looking over me after finally getting the blankety-blank tent erected.

My friend asked: That was what I had meant, right?

It is now, I said.

 

 

 

 

 

Clubbing Tom Cotton with John Burris

The employee-employer relationship between state Rep. John Burris of Harrison, a responsible Republican state representative, and U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, an irresponsible congressman seeking undeserved promotion to the U.S. Senate, is indeed a delicate one.

U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, whom Cotton presumes to seek to replace, has no regard for that delicacy. He simply sees a wedge. He sees an exploitable opportunity.

This morning Pryor’s campaign press relations agent, a smart and tough and diligent former prize-winning newspaper reporter, has been poking me to exploit this relationship. And, indeed, here I stand — manipulated into writing about this matter. But I’m not sure I’m writing about it the way the Pryor people would have me write about it.

Burris is an elected state representative practicing by constituent responsibility his own direct form of politics and public policy at the state level. He also has hired on as  Arkansas “political director” for Cotton, a campaign-funded position that has him in service not to himself, directly, but to Cotton.

An uncommonly bright and politically able young man, far more impressive in my view than Cotton, Burris was one of the primary GOP architects of the so-called private option form of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. By that mechanism, the state got a federal waiver to take the federal money for the expansion but to use it to buy private insurance for poor people on the Obamacare health care exchange, and to impose other privatizing conservative principles — co-pays, premiums, centers of excellence and so forth.

Cotton wants to repeal all of Obamacare and won’t take a position on the private option because it’s a state issue that would go away if he and others successfully repealed Obamacare at the federal level.

So the other morning Burris sent out a mass email to Republican legislative backers of the private option telling them he was convinced more than ever of the private option’s wisdom and hoping everyone would stay the course against a few critics, some of whom seem to want to use the state legislative process as a “playground.”

Aha, said the Pryor campaign. Lookie here, it announced. Here is Tom Cotton’s political director touting the benefits to the state of a program that his boss, the Senate candidate of primary fealty to the Club for Growth, wants to end.

They want to use Burris’ responsibility against Cotton’s irresponsibility.

Burris’ private option is the “Ford” delivering health care to poor people in Arkansas, the aforementioned campaign agent told me. But the Affordable Care Act is the “fuel.” And Burris is touting the Ford while the man for whom he works is trying to dry up the gasoline.

OK. Fine.

What the Pryor campaign wants to do is pick up poor ol’ responsible John Burris and use him as a club to pound irresponsible Tom Cotton.

And I’d rather beat up Tom with some other weapon. There are so many. He is so dreadful, opposing even the recent budget deal, and the farm bill, and college student loans, and disaster aid and food stamps.

What I would like to do is explain Burris’ own independent state legislative position, going like this: He believes — like Cotton, actually — that Obamacare is bad and ought to be repealed. He hopes for that. But, meantime, the reality is that Obamacare is the law and there is a pot of money available for Arkansas. He believes in the wisdom of the state’s availing itself of that money to provide a national laboratory for reforming Medicaid into a privatized system. If Obamacare collapses or is repealed and the federal Medicaid manna goes away, then Burris would want the expanded Medicaid coverage in Arkansas to go away. But he would favor continuing the private option or at least its principles in a new form of basic Medicaid.

Please understand all of this is at risk in the fiscal legislative session in February.

If the private option doesn’t get re-upped by arduous three-fourths votes in the House and Senate, barely achieved last time, then its funding authority goes away and the state’s income tax cuts are no longer paid for — since the private option uses federal dollars to produce state taxpayer savings.

Asa Hutchinson, should he get elected governor, would confront an imbalanced budget as he seeks to impose his hundred million dollars’ worth of additional income tax cuts.

So all of this approximately enormous.

 

All tied up for Senate and governor

Last week Republicans gleefully touted a poll commissioned by a bankroller of Tom Cotton that said Cotton was ahead of Mark Pryor by 48-41 in our big U. S. Senate race.

So it seems fair today to report a survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic outfit, putting the race in a dead heat, 44-44.

A near-identical finding was made in the governor’s race, with Republican Asa Hutchinson leading Democrat Mike Ross — if you can call it leading– by 44-43.

The PPP poll, a robo-call survey of 1,004 Arkansans from Dec 13 to Dec. 15, was mainly done, apparently, to test basic leanings on raising the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10 an hour. It found superficial support for that by a margin of 52-38.

The races are all about a gender gap, apparently.

Pryor leads among women by 49-37 and Cotton leads among men by 53-39.  Ross leads among women by 46-39 and Hutchinson leads among men by 49-39.

Women provided 53 percent of the sample and men 47 percent.

This was the party breakdown: 37 percent of respondents identified as Democrats; 37 percent identified as independents, and 27 percent identified as Republicans. That adds to 101 percent, which must have to do with some rounding-up.

 

What the heck happened on UA audit Friday?

I’ve been nosing around trying to make sense of the nonsense occurring Friday at the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee on the audit of the University of Arkansas Flagship Campus at Fayetteville (UAFCF).

I have concluded that media accounts of UA strong-armed orchestration and legislative whitewashing are overstated.

Fayetteville campus officials learned only Thursday, the day before the meeting, that Sen. Bill Sample, Republican of Hot Springs, intended to make a motion to accept the critical audit of the school’s fiscal mismanagement in the chronically deficit-ridden advancement operation.

They did not actively lobby for that, surmising from their discussions that what was happening had as much to do with internal legislative issues as with the university. That is to say they had determined that there was sentiment in the committee that the co-chairmen, Rep. Kim Hammer of Benton and Sen. Bryan King of Green Forest, both Republicans, had over-politicized and grandstanded the matter.

Meantime, Johnny Goodson, the rich Mr.-Fix-It class action lawyer from Texarkana who Gov. Mike Beebe made the mistake of appointing to the UA Board of Trustees, had gone to Senate President ProTem Michael Lamoureux of Russellville to ask what the board might be able to do to try to get the issue put to bed so that the Fayetteville campus could move on.

Lamoureux’s advice was that Goodson, who knows how to settle a case, go before the committee and gather up all the tactical or genuine humility of which he was capable and admit the UA’s egregious errors and vow that lessons had been learned and would be diligently applied forthwith.

Lamoureux said no one with the Fayetteville campus administration seemed capable either of exercising or feigning humility.

Goodson said he could do that, and would, and was given the opportunity to do so in opening remarks at the meeting Friday.

Moments before that, I’m told, Goodson had remarked to other UA officials that there was no chance in the world that Sample’s motion would pass.

But then Sample made his motion to accept the audit and Sen. Linda Chesterfield of Little Rock, a progressive Democrat, seconded it by explaining a few basic facts: (1) The committee accepts unfavorable audits all the time without acquitting anyone; (2) the commitee is not a court and a prosecutor had already decided not to file charges, and (3) the acceptance of the audit would not preclude hearing the planned testimony of the two sacrificed employees of the advancement office — Brad Choate and Joy  Sharp.

So the  motion passed, 21-13.

By this time, Hammer, presiding, had got entirely out of sorts about this apparent rebuff by his committee. So he said the committee would proceed to hear from Choate and Sharp unless there was any objection. So Sample said, “I object.” and then Hammer huffed, essentially saying to heck with it, matter closed, no more discussion.

Several in the 21 majority votes had not intended or known that their vote would deny the testimony.

Lamoureux tells me it is now likely that Choate and Sharp will be invited to give their testimony to another legislative committee, perhaps the Joint Performance Review Committee.

That would be appropriate. I hope that it happens. And surely it will, if, as I am advised and assert here, the university did not strong-arm legislators into a whitewash.

I will seek to develop this further for my column Thursday, unless something else comes up.

UA student gives the paper what-for

The public information operation of the University of Arkansas (the flagship one at Fayetteville) distributed last night a pugnacious statement from Bo Renner, student government president, in which Renner declared that the Razorbacks finished  the regular season 12-1 and will play Florida State for the national championship.

No. Wait. That wasn’t it.

What the lad said was that the university is doing great — growing, attracting stellar students, retaining those students, engaging in vital research and earning national academic acclaim. And he said the Democrat-Gazette ignores this good story, this real story, to harp on chronic multi-million-dollar overspending in the fund-raising office that has produced an unfavorable state legislative audit and led to a prosecutor’s investigation.

The university Mr. Renner accurately describes is indeed to be celebrated. But the inability of the young man to compartmentalize issues, to separate the general success of the institution from pockets of budgetary misfeasance and FOI law resistance, suggests that he needs to mature if ever-so-slightly so that he can keep unrelated matters in an emotionally detached perspective. I’m sure his fine university can help him with that maturation.

It’s not a precise comparison, but it’s close enough to be instructive: Take the case of Bobby Petrino. He misbehaved egregiously and was fired. All of that was legitimate news. But, at the same time, the UA football team had been highly successful under his coaching. It had just finished a season of 11-2 after one of 10-3. So was the media at fault for reporting his misbehavior? Or should it simply have reported the successes of the two most-recent seasons and ignored motorcycle wreckage and girlfriend-hiring and public misrepresentation?

You see?

So let’s go forward by walking and chewing gum at the same time — praising the general performance of this flagship while reporting as well on the big Legislative Joint Auditing Commirtee meeting on the budget woes taking place tomorrow morning.

And, most of all, we must never yield.

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