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The Last Word

The more things change, the more they stay the same

By Roby Brock

As we enter 2022, I’ll celebrate (and commiserate) working at the state capitol or covering Arkansas politics for 30 years. My first foray in state politics was working in the transition office when then-Gov. Bill Clinton was elected president and he transferred power to then Lt. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker. I got to witness that historic transfer of leadership up close in a private chamber session, which was pretty exciting for a 20-something political newbie.

Right after he was sworn in, Gov. Tucker called a special session of the legislature to deal with a Medicaid funding shortfall, which led to the soda pop tax that stayed on the books for decades. During that dramatic special session, bottlers circled the capitol with their delivery trucks in an intimidating blockade and their employees entered the marble halls of the capitol shaking empty aluminum soft drink cans filled with pennies. It was near-deafening. 

Meanwhile, supporters of Medicaid—nursing home employees and residents, developmentally disabled families and teams of pro-soda pop tax supporters—wandered the halls in confrontation with the uniformed soft drink workers.

I see debates today with similar passions. The topics may change, but the process for affecting public policy hasn’t. A majority of 100 House members and 35 Senators must agree on the policy shift and that proposal must pass through committees, chambers and be signed by the governor—just like it's been since our 1874 Constitution was adopted.

The legislature has changed in its makeup. I’ve worked with legislators who had served 40+ years in the same seat. I remember the first time term limits kicked in and we saw nearly half of the House and Senate leave in one cycle. And I’ve seen the changes brought about by the seismic shift in Arkansas politics from Democratic supermajorities to Republican ones.

Up to one-half of the state legislature may be different after this next election cycle due to retirements, term limits, potential defeats of incumbents and newly drawn districts.

Republicans will hold their legislative supermajorities, maybe even build on them. They are frontrunners for all statewide races and federal offices.

The major battle in this GOP rule will be between two strains of Republicanism in the upcoming primaries, although I’m generalizing to some extent in defining those branches. One subset of GOP candidates appeals to voters who are more “establishment.” They have been party activists for decades, tend to be conservative on social issues and lean pro-business on fiscal matters.

A newer subset fits more into the category of “populist.” They are conservative fiscally, conservative on some social issues but libertarian on others, and often settle into an unwavering position despite where expertise or new evidence may direct a policy debate.

The primaries will give us a good read on the makeup of that Republican governing majority.

Democrats’ best goal is to win enough legislative races (25%) to remove the “supermajority” status of the GOP. That would give them some power, such as being able to dictate passage of budget bills which could influence policy.

I tell people often: there have always been competent legislators and incompetent legislators—with or without term limits, despite which political party is in power. The good ones always find a way into leadership roles. I don’t expect that to change after the 2022 election.

The late Tim Massanelli, longtime parliamentarian in the Arkansas House, used to give a capitol tour to freshmen representatives when they came for orientation. He would encourage them to look at the previous General Assemblies, whose composite pictures hang like a yearbook on the walls of the capitol corridors.

At the last stop, Massanelli would tell the freshmen: “You know what all of these pictures have in common? Everybody thought they were the greatest thing ever for this institution and it would stop after they left. But it kept going. Remember this place was here long before you got here, and it will last long after you leave. Take good care of it while you’re here, but remember it’s timeless."

Roby Brock is the editor-in-chief of Talk Business & Politics, a 23-year-old multi-media organization.

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