THE NEW REPUBLICAN: Sen. Bob Ballinger introduced a bill to roll back the minimum wage hike Arkansas voters passed by a landslide. That's not something Republicans of the past would have done. Brian Chilson

Yielding to the enduring impulse of legislature watchers, one is moved to declare the 2019 Arkansas General Assembly one of the worst, if not the worst, of modern times, owing to the simple volume of conspicuously unconstitutional, discriminatory, punitive and regressive bills flowing through both legislative bodies.

History may offer a better perspective, because the governor seems to have a subtler eye for appearances than his soldiers in the legislature and may restrain some of their baser instincts. Democrats, as everyone knows, are now powerless in a government that, root and branch, is solidly Republican.


But we can make this judgment without reservation: The great political realignment, begun in the South in the 1960s, is now complete in Arkansas, as it is in the nation. For most of the last century, both parties were divided by their progressive and conservative wings, Democrats holding the largest and most virulently conservative component — the Solid South — and Republicans being the leading champions of expanding the rights of women and minorities, progressive taxation, public education and, yes, even good wages for the sons of toil. All of that has flipped, as the legislature reminds us every day.

Let’s take the last one, the minimum wage, an idea originally propounded by the great Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt. The great Arkansas Republican Winthrop Rockefeller, fathered the Arkansas minimum wage by shaming Democratic legislators into voting for his bill. Since then, legislators have been averse to flouting the chamber of commerce and raising the wage by law, leaving that to the voters. Every time voters have raised the wage, Arkansas actually added jobs and unemployment went down, which follows the national pattern.


Over the opposition of the governor and nearly every Republican politician, Arkansans — by a landslide — voted in November to raise it to something still short of a living wage. Sen. Bob Ballinger (R-Berryville), who thinks he is paid to take care of special interests, introduced a bill to gut the wage law, and other Republicans joined in to refine it — that is, until Governor Hutchinson decided that humiliating voters so shamelessly might not be the best medicine for the party.

Especially since the party also is raising taxes right and left on working people to pay for a $150 million tax cut for people with high incomes.


Although Arkansas already has high sales, cigarette and motor-fuels taxes, all will be raised to keep the treasury flush after the big tax cut for the well-to-do. People with marginal incomes may get a little tax cut, too, but the smokers among them will counter those savings with higher excise taxes. It is worth noting that the biggest tax champions in Arkansas history were Republicans, Winthrop Rockefeller and Mike Huckabee; the former tried to raise them but couldn’t, and Huckabee did in abundance. Rockefeller sought to raise the top marginal rate on millionaires to 12 percent.

Women are the biggest victims of the turnaround. Republicans flooded the legislature this winter with bills (10 at last count) that violate the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of a woman’s right to end an unwanted pregnancy on health or mental grounds. Just as Republicans were the leading proponents of giving women the right to vote (and Southern Democrats the leading opponents), Republicans on the Supreme Court were largely the ones who said the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment gave women — not the government — control of their bodies and health decisions. Roe v. Wade was written by a Republican, who was joined by four other justices appointed by Republican presidents and then, in subsequent decisions, by a fifth and a sixth appointed by Reagan and Bush I.

That was before the party figured out that its salvation lay in fighting abortion; advancing ownership of weaponry; oppressing gays, other sexual minorities, immigrants and the indolent poor; and honoring the cause of the Confederacy. All of those were at one time or another the domains of Arkansas Democrats, enacted into law in spasms from post-Reconstruction to the Ku Klux Klan revival in the 1920s, the battle to preserve segregation in the 1950s and beyond. Democrats made homosexuality a crime in the 1980s before the Arkansas and U.S. Supreme Courts struck down such laws — opinions delivered at the U.S. court by a Republican friend of Reagan. Republicans are trying again this legislative session to protect discrimination against sexual minorities.

Rep. Charles Blake (D-Little Rock), an African-American legislator, introduced a bill last month altering a law passed during the KKK revival that honored the period when Arkansas joined the war against the United States to save slavery (a move opposed alone by patriotic Republicans from the Ozarks). The legislator simply wanted to change the language from the old KKK law to say the star in the Arkansas flag didn’t honor the Confederacy but an Indian tribe that made Arkansas home before the European settlers drove them out. Republicans wouldn’t vote for his bill, but the governor, who was courting African Americans, sent word that he wouldn’t mind if they sent him the flag bill.


This is the first legislative session in recent years where Republicans have not sought to shrink voting by African Americans, the poor, the aged and the disabled — groups that are believed to be more likely to vote for Democrats. They had finally accomplished that with a constitutional amendment that was ratified by voters in November. Election officials — now Republicans — are empowered to say in many instances whose votes will be counted. The Voting Rights Act, which precluded voting restraints like the Republicans now impose, passed in 1965 only because Republican senators voted for it 30 to 2 and Republican congressmen 112 to 23. None of the six Arkansas Democrats in Congress voted for it.

But the job of denying access to medical care for shiftless poor people, a new Republican priority, is unfinished. The legislature and the governor will soon have ended health coverage under Medicaid to upward of 50,000 poor people, although the law clearly says it is illegal to do that. A federal court was expected to say at the end of March that Arkansas is violating the law, in which case the legislature will have to decide whether to live with it or kick another 200,000 off the insurance rolls. You may recognize the irony: The two fiercest proponents of government health coverage for the poor were Republicans Rockefeller and Huckabee. Bygone days.

Public education for everyone, black and white, rich and poor, was an idea of the Republican carpetbaggers — enshrined in the Arkansas Constitution as the single mandate of the government — and a cause notably advanced by Rockefeller and Huckabee, who tried mightily to raise taxes for public schools. The legislature and executive branch now are cutting away at that support and diverting tax support from the public schools to private, religious and entrepreneurial schools. This is the new ordinary, but, before you despair, remember that we have been there before, under Democratic auspices.