A good movie features lead characters facing a high-stakes challenge that they overcome after considerable tension and drama, leading to a satisfying conclusion. If that’s the case, this year’s General Assembly of the Arkansas Legislature would not be much of a movie.
Consider what recent sessions have involved. In the 1990s and 2000s, state legislators were forced to react to the Lake View court case, so they spent billions of additional dollars on schools and engaged in impassioned debates about consolidation. Since 2013, each regular and fiscal session has revolved around a similar central plot point: Should the private option be created/continued/modified into Arkansas Works? Like sequels that are similar to the original, legislators each time debated questions about the role of state government regarding that program, which uses federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private health insurance for low-income individuals. In 2015, additional drama was created by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was about citizens’ ability to refuse to participate in activities they said violated their conscience but which opponents said allowed them to discriminate. That issue brought crowds of protestors to the Capitol and national attention to Arkansas.
Those sessions all had an external source of tension where the response had significant consequences. With school funding and consolidation, court decisions forced legislators to make difficult decisions that everyone knew would affect schoolchildren’s future and disrupt communities. With health care policy and the RFRA, legislators were responding to far-reaching changes in the federal government and the wider culture, forcing them to make difficult, conflicted choices.
And that’s why this session would not make much of a movie. There’s no external challenge – no court decision, no law, and no decision in Washington that requires a reaction. Republicans now control everything in Washington and dominate Arkansas state government, and it’s all happened so recently that the internal conflicts that make good movies better haven’t really developed.
So while legislators have made some big decisions this year, they haven’t made dramatic ones. They voted to place a lawsuit reform measure on the ballot, which means the action there is to be continued until November 2018. They passed a small tax cut at the beginning of the session that won’t change anyone’s life or break the bank. The implementation of the Medical Marijuana Amendment, which could have been a mess, has been mostly routine. Meanwhile, the governor, who sees himself first and foremost as the state economic-developer-in-chief, so far has tamped down any movement to address transgender bathrooms, the session’s potential national headline creator.
Legislators are still meeting, which means there’s still time for a plot twist. The long-running subplot about guns on college campuses continues to draw attention. Also ongoing is the potentially dramatic debate about removing General Robert E. Lee from the Martin Luther King Holiday. But while these are important, they’re not bring-everything-else-to-a-halt issues like the private option or school consolidation.
The thing about the Legislature is that it’s not a standalone movie but instead is an ongoing series, and 2017 merely has been one episode. The external conflict that’s been missing the past few months could return in a big way later in the year. If Congress and the Trump administration make major changes to health care – and that’s a big if – then legislators will be back in Little Rock having to rethink policies affecting hundreds of thousands of Arkansans. It will literally be life and death stuff.
If anything about this column is meant to sound like a complaint, it’s not. Government is not a movie. In fact, one of the reasons Washington has become so dysfunctional is that it’s increasingly treated as entertainment, with the same characters playing either a hero or a villain depending on which screen we’re watching.
But whether or not it’s entertaining, it is important. So stay tuned, because average citizens aren’t just viewers but also help write the script, and there’s no ending.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.