An early look at this week’s column by Ernie Dumas, who provides a history lesson on how Arkansas came to be the only state in the union that allows a 25 percent minority of one house of the legislature to stymie the majority will, even if it means death to vital government programs.
We are looking today at the possibility that nine senators could kill recently expanded health insurance for 150,000 or more Arkansas citizens, produce a potential budget deficit curable only by other cuts and imperil hospitals across the state.
The measure that allows this tyranny of a minority caused a crisis at its inception, Dumas writes.
His column follows. Stick around for David O. Doddr.
By Ernest Dumas
Arkansas is not the only state to fool around with minority rule, but killing health insurance for 150,000 or so citizens next month will push the state far into the vanguard of states that have experimented with it.
Giving a small minority absolute power over how the government will raise and spend taxes seems dangerous, doesn’t it? Well, the history of minority rule is as woeful as you would expect it to be.
Either nine of the 35 members of the Senate or 26 of the 100 representatives can stop almost any of the hundreds of government spending programs, and it looks like nine Republicans in the Senate will do exactly that with the federal program to insure the state’s poorest workers and their families.
No other state allows a fourth of one house of its legislature to dictate how the state will spend its money.
Since the adoption of Amendment 19 in 1934, no appropriation can become law unless it gets the votes of 75 percent of both houses, unless the money is for Confederate pensions, checks to bondholders, education or highways. Those exceptions can be funded by the simple majority that passes other acts, including laws that can take away your life, liberty or property. But the other 600 or so spending bills can be killed by as few as nine of the 135 lawmakers.
If the legislature at its fiscal session next month does not reach the huge majority needed to continue using federal money to pay health insurance premiums for the working poor, it will be because nine or ten senators united to show that they were against President Obama and his health insurance law.
Blocking the expenditure of hundreds of millions of federal dollars on health care for Arkansas people won’t save the state a dime and it will plunge the state budget into deficit and hospitals all across the state into crisis. If that seems spiteful and witless, it applies to the whole history of Amendment 19.
Let’s return to 1932, when the nation repudiated President Hoover’s pinched fiscal policies, which people believed deepened if they had not caused the depression. Hoover got only12 percent of Arkansans’ votes. But the same year they elected a new governor, who promised fiscal policies that would make Hoover look like a socialist.
Arkansas was the poorest and most debt-ridden state, tied for last in per-capita income but first in per-capita public debt. Arkansas had invested heavily on road and bridge building with borrowed money but the floods of 1927 washed them away, and the state borrowed again to rebuild them. Although it had the nation’s worst schools, the state was left with no money for education.
So Marion Futrell promised that if elected he would cut taxes and slash spending by 50 percent. He got only 44 percent of the votes but that was enough.
He kept his promise. He and the legislature cut spending by 51 percent so that virtually all the state’s meager tax receipts went to pay bondholders, Confederates and a few essentials like patronage government employees. Futrell thought spending was the cause of all suffering so to prevent future spending and taxing he got the legislature in 1933 to refer Amendment 19, which allowed as few as nine legislators to defeat spending or to block increases in existing taxes. Bewildered, only half the people who went to the polls in 1934 voted either way on it, but it was ratified.
Exempting education from the supermajority vote must have been galling for the governor, for he believed Arkansas shouldn’t spend a dime on high schools and not much for other schooling. Teachers were put on federal relief rolls. In 1934, the federal government spent more than $1 million to give Arkansas teachers some income. Schools were open for only part of the year.
The state welshed on nearly everything else, too. President Roosevelt established relief programs that dispensed the nation’s vast farm surpluses to the jobless and hungry, but states were expected to run the programs and help in a small way to pay for them. They all did, except Arkansas.
Roosevelt’s Emergency Relief Administration warned Arkansas that it had to do its share like other states. Futrell dug in and asked voters to approve his three-fourths amendment, which would show the feds we meant business.
The amendment became law in January 1935 and the governor and legislature enacted more austerities and went home. Roosevelt announced that on March 1 federal relief to Arkansas would end if it did not bear some of the load like other states.
Fearing mobs when all the relief ended, a panicky Futrell recalled the legislators. “We’re sitting on a powder keg,” he told them. They enacted a passel of new taxes, including a 2 percent sales tax on necessities, and the appropriations to spend them.
Since then, a small band has occasionally held an appropriation hostage to the 75 percent. A senator from Marked Tree got his pals to block money for the state Pharmacy Board until it dropped sanctions against his druggist. South Arkansas senators stymied the prison appropriation until Governor Bumpers fired the reformist prison director hired by the previous Republican governor. Bumpers refused but the guy quit to keep the prisons open.
A clique once blocked the appropriation for executive, legislative and judicial offices, but the speaker pronounced it a “just debt of the state,” like bondholders, so it was allowed to pass by a majority. Legislative leaders might try that with the Medicaid appropriation.
Or else include a pension in Medicaid for descendants of the Confederate hero David O. Dodd, which would make it important enough that a majority could pass it.
…and even the Arkansas Democrat Gazette would endorse it.