Mike Beebe Expresses Optimism On 2013 Arkansas Session

Gov. Mike Beebe said his technique for working with the new Republican majority in the Arkansas Legislature was “the same as it’s always been: education, explanation, give and take, listen, persuade.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” the veteran Democrat told Arkansas Business. “I think that the leadership of both the House and the Senate has already exhibited a bipartisan, pragmatic, problem-solving attitude. I think they’ve exhibited that in terms of their structure, their makeup, their leadership appointments, the bipartisan way that they’ve approached organization in the session.

“I have a good working relationship both with Senator Lamoureux and with the speaker-elect,” he said. “So far, that’s continued.”

The governor was referring to Sen. Michael Lamoureux, who will be the Senate president pro tempore in the 89th General Assembly, convening Jan. 14, and Rep. Davy Carter, the House speaker-elect. Both are Republicans, and both have hired longtime Democrats as aides during the session. Lamoureux, of Russellville, has hired former state Sen. Steve Faris. Carter, of Cabot, engaged former House Speaker Bill Stovall to serve as chief of operations and Gabe Holmstrom, former executive director of the Arkansas Democratic Party, as the House chief of staff.

As for Beebe’s legislative priorities, they are education, action on Medicaid — an issue that encompasses both the $138 million shortfall that the $5 billion Arkansas program is facing and its potential expansion as part of Obamacare — and elimination of almost all of the state sales tax on groceries.

Add preserving the state’s Quick Action Closing Fund to that list. The governor is asking lawmakers to add an undetermined amount to the fund, whose current balance is $13.3 million.

“We need to continue the progress that we’ve made with regard to the Quick Action Closing [Fund] being a tool to be continued for economic development purposes,” Beebe said in a recent interview.

The governor defended the state’s use of tax breaks and subsidies to attract business. “I believe that we would not have even been in the running for a number of successful economic announcements if it weren’t for our ability to be competitive because of the Quick Action Closing Fund.”

Asked for examples, Beebe ticked them off: Hewlett Packard, Nordex, Beckmann Volmer. And the list includes high-tech firms as well, he said, citing Nanomech Inc. of Springdale, which develops nanotechnology products. The firm “never would have gotten off the ground in the state of Arkansas if it wasn’t for Quick Action,” he said.

Beebe declined to speculate on any potential compromise on the expansion of Medicaid, the health care insurance program for the poor. Republicans have opposed expanding Medicaid in Arkansas; the governor and Democrats support adding 250,000 Arkansans to its rolls. Instead, the governor marshaled talking points in defense of expansion.

“I don’t even want to get into the argument about whether this is really good for working families, which obviously I believe it is,” he said. “I don’t even think you have to get into the argument about how this saves programs and hospitals, which I think it does.”

“We’re going to be paying for this whether we accept expansion or not,” Beebe said. “I don’t want to subsidize Michigan and California and New York and Illinois and New Jersey and Massachusetts, and you just start naming them. I don’t want to subsidize them and leave our people out. You can analogize it, if you want, to federal highway taxes. We’re going to be paying them; I want my fair share of the highways.”

Last Regular Session

The 89th General Assembly will be Beebe’s last regular legislative session. Asked what he’s proudest of having achieved since becoming governor in 2007, Beebe responded with a tally that included the state’s improved performance in a number of education rankings, particularly K-12; Arkansas’ maintenance of a balanced budget in the face of a nationwide economic downturn; an improvement in per-capita income; and the slashing of the sales tax on groceries from 6 percent to 1.5 percent.

So what is the proper role of government in Arkansans’ lives?

“You don’t have enough ink,” Beebe said, laughing. But he then obliged, saying good government is all about setting priorities.

If the “No. 1 priority of the federal government is to protect us from all enemies foreign and domestic, so too is the No. 1 priority of state government the education of our people,” he said. But “education without jobs is pretty hollow.”

Ultimately, the cornerstones of what state government should seek to accomplish are educating its citizens to ensure they can find good jobs, Beebe said. If those goals are met, other issues — public safety, emergency management, a social safety net for children, the old, the disabled — are easier to address.

“People start saying they want smaller government … but you do that in a responsible way that doesn’t throw people out of nursing homes, that doesn’t close your human development centers, that doesn’t put 60 or 50 or 40 youngsters in a classroom, that doesn’t totally neglect colleges and universities and drive them out of business or drive them to the point that tuition is so high nobody can go. You do that in a sensible fashion.”

Beebe has a long political history in Arkansas. Asked what keeps him from growing cynical, he said, “Part of it is the nature of my personality. I always see the glass as half-full, not half-empty. I look for the best in people, and more often than not I’m rewarded because more people are good than bad.

“I’m not naïve about it. We’ve got some folks that don’t fall into that category. But fortunately, in my experience, they’ve been in the minority. And there are little bitty anecdotal things that occur from time to time that keep you from being cynical.”

He relayed the following:

A young woman waited in the freezing cold one night outside of an event that Beebe was speaking at in Arkadelphia. She’d waited for an hour and driven 45 or 50 miles just to thank him on behalf of her husband who was working and couldn’t get off work. Her husband wanted the governor to know that he was grateful for a pardon Beebe had granted that gave the man a second chance at a good life.

“And she waited out there with tears in her eyes for an hour in that freezing weather just to say thank you. Those are the kinds of little things, the kind of one-at-a-time victories that make you thankful for what you’re doing and keep you from being cynical.”