I want you to think of the three biggest challenges facing Arkansas right now. Take a second and get them in your mind. Anything you come up with is great. Got them?
Was lack of economic opportunity or systemic poverty one? Improving education? Community violence, or inequities in the criminal justice system? Maybe you thought of climate change? Or the disparities resulting from the way we treat people of color or women? Maybe it was a lack of good roads and internet access? Or lack of quality housing, or access to quality health care? I’d love to hear your ideas and why you chose them.
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Now, how many of you think Arkansas is doing too much right now to solve these problems?
I doubt many of you do. One of the most frustrating things in Arkansas is that we have known what our biggest challenges are for generations. We are close to 50th in too many quality of life measures and too close to first in too many negative measures. And we know it. It’s practically part of our Arkansas DNA. Thank God for Mississippi!
What’s even more frustrating is we also know the solutions to most of those problems. We have endless studies, commissions and reports with recommendations gathering dust, waiting for the political courage to implement them.
Just a few years ago we had a task force on poverty that made great recommendations. Ignored. A task force on special education called for funding to solve critical failures. Again ignored. The current tax task force brought in economic experts to talk about stimulating economic growth, and there have been dozens of reports over the past 20 years on how to improve the Arkansas tax code, which already taxes poor people twice the rate that we tax the wealthy and corporations. Again lawmakers have ignored almost all of it.
It turns out that too many of us are voting for politicians who believe that we’re doing too much to solve Arkansas’s problems. Or they look at the proven recommendations from expert commissions but then choose to go their own way backed by the ideology of some special interest with little evidence to support them. And so we remain stuck at 49th.
Most of the time the stagnation comes down to money. A lot of the solutions our communities need, from education to economic development, require investments in research-proven solutions. We could zoom Arkansas forward tomorrow with the amount of expertise amassed on our challenges, but we lack the political will to make those investments. Instead, strings of governors and legislatures keep selling that the solutions to our challenges are cheap taxes on the powerful and weak public oversight.
So in a state full of needs we get crazy stuff. The legislature has cut unemployment benefits despite the fact that we know that traps more people in poverty. Lawmakers are looking for reasons to cancel people’s access to health care. Lawmakers ignored recommendations to create quality afterschool and summer programs, or expand quality pre-k, despite overwhelming evidence of their effectiveness. Instead, they’ve attacked teachers, ignored the consensus solutions available and pushed private school vouchers and charter schools despite little evidence they are effective. And the disproportionately poor and minority students segregated out of access to a quality education are blamed for their lack of opportunity.
It’s happening again this year. The governor and many Arkansas lawmakers are again looking at the myriad challenges and opportunities facing Arkansas, and their key proposal is again a giant tax cut for the wealthy. All of the evidence is that this won’t help Arkansas. In fact, it will leave us without the resources to address the real needs of our state and it will exacerbate inequality. It’s as if they are trying to jump from 49th to 50th in quality of life measures.
They are looking at the challenges facing Arkansas and saying we’re already doing too much to solve them.
It’s wrong at best. And it’s immoral when we know better. It’s time for us to remind lawmakers that we want real solutions and real investments. Show them you want living wages by supporting the minimum wage increase. Show them you’re tired of voter suppression antics by rejecting the voter ID measure that solves nothing while ignoring proven solutions that would improve our elections. You already know what our challenges are. Election Day is Nov. 6. Let’s do more to move Arkansas forward and stop electing lawmakers determined to move us backward.
Bill Kopsky is executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.