The Arkansas Citizens First Congress has compiled its scorecard of the 2015 legislative session, which includes a guide to how every state senator and representative voted on the bills that the group considered most important this year (good and bad). The Citizens First Congress is a grassroots, progressive lobbying coalition affiliated with the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.

The scorecard is an invaluable tool for progressives to compare the performance of state legislators on the most important issues. It grades lawmakers according to their votes on 32 bills in six areas: health, education, civil rights, environmental policy, economic justice and election & government reform.

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It will come as no surprise that the scores assigned by CFC to much of the current legislature are low, but the report includes a page of historical trends that indicates just how much has changed since the 2009 regular session, which is when the group began compiling its scorecard. It gave the average representative a score of 77 percent that year, the average senator 83 percent. The average scores have dropped each session since, and now stands at 46 percent for reps and 50 percent for senators. 

“The results of the 2015 session are unprecedented,” the group said in a statement released along with the scorecard. “The body has become more partisan and divisive as the overlap in scores between Democrats and Republicans is shrinking. A legislator’s vote on a given issue is now much more strongly correlated to the party that legislator is from than it used to be. This polarized and hyper-partisan climate makes progress on non-partisan issues more challenging.”

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The report points out some victories from the 90th General Assembly. First and foremost, of course, is renewal of the private option: “Our members and partners got the message through that Arkansas
can’t afford to abandon access to quality health care for 250,000 Arkansans.” It also mentions blockage of HB 1733 (the bill that would have hastened the privatization of Arkansas public schools), the creation of a task force on special education, the partial victory on HB 1228, a few positive steps with energy efficiency, and some progress on prison reform.

To inject a requisite note of cynicism: There were, of course, powerful interest groups at work on many of these issues. The battles won by progressives in Arkansas (well, OK, everywhere) tend to be those in which there’s a parochial heavyweight as an ally. On the private option, hospitals, other medical providers and insurers beat back the anti-Obamacare forces. Walmart and other business interests came out against the discriminatory intent of HB 1228. The influential superintendents’ association was instrumental in sinking the school privatization bill.

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Still, as the CFC says, legislators do listen to constituents concerns, generally speaking. Citizen lobbying of state government can be powerful lever in its own right, when applied in the right place at the right time. That’s a point that many progressives in Arkansas miss: As a group, state lawmakers may be conservative, reactionary, sometimes obnoxious and frequently venal, but they usually are accessible, especially to people living in their district.

Then there were the losses. Says the report:

We had setbacks as well. The Governor’s final budget slashed funding for libraries and health clinics. Proven educational reforms went unfunded or underfunded. Needed prison reforms went underfunded. Tax relief for the working poor was rejected while tax breaks for millionaires sailed through.

Working people had a hard session. Lawmakers cut unemployment benefits by more than 20%. They rejected giving workers the right to see a pay stub. They voted to continue the only debtors’ prison left in America, which criminalizes late rent. They also cut education standards for curriculum, teacher certification and facilities. They sided with big oil over individual property rights and made it harder for Arkansas to create its own clean power plan. They rejected a proposal to study the racial impact of new legislation. They took local control away from communities who might consider their own civil rights ordinances and rejected legislation that would have ended the expensive, unnecessary and discriminatory death penalty.

Some of our priorities did not pass, but we built momentum, developed leadership and will keep pushing. Arkansas lawmakers respond to their local constituents. We need to keep talking with our neighbors and friends about the priorities our state should have to create opportunities for everyone.

Here’s the full report: