Posted 3/3/2013 02:08 pm
Updated 9 months ago
LITTLE ROCK — The partnership Gov. Mike Beebe has boasted having with the Arkansas Legislature is turning more into a love-hate relationship under Republican control. They're not sworn enemies, but not exactly best friends either. They're more like frenemies.
The complicated nature of that relationship is steadily becoming apparent as Beebe and the rest of the state are adjusting to the first Republican legislative majority in 138 years.
Beebe's told lawmakers that they're in charge of the money and the policy, a statement Republicans have been all too happy to repeat as Beebe opposes an idea to cap state spending growth. He's called a proposal to ban most abortions in the state "patently unconstitutional," but the lawmaker behind that measure is also the Senate sponsor of Beebe's grocery tax cut.
He's praised the Republican lawmaker behind a 20-week abortion ban as a man of a character, while assailing the state's GOP lieutenant governor for offering to sign that bill while the governor was out of town.
The comments show just how carefully Beebe and Republicans are approaching each other after last year's election.
That balance for Beebe was on full display last week, as he talked with reporters about a 20-week abortion ban that he ended up vetoing later that day. While citing concerns about the measure, Beebe went out of his way to praise the lawmaker behind the ban for declining an offer by Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Darr to sign the bill while Beebe was in Washington.
"That showed a lot of character and class on his part," Beebe said. He echoed those remarks later in his letter vetoing the measure, a veto that the Republican-led House and Senate moved quickly to override.
He had much less love for Darr, saying he'd be more careful about leaving the state after the Republican lieutenant governor signed a bill concealing the state's list of concealed handgun permit holders. It's a measure that Beebe opposed, but planned to let it become law without his signature.
"You can't turn your back now," Beebe said.
The disagreements Beebe and Republicans have had since Republicans won control of the Legislature last year have been tame so far compared to the ones that GOP Gov. Mike Huckabee had during his 10½ years with a Democratic-led House and Senate. The House and Senate vote to override Beebe's veto on the 20-week ban was the first he's had since taking office. In Huckabee's first session, Democratic lawmakers overrode 10 of 16 vetoes.
Though Beebe has signaled he's likely to veto a 12-week abortion ban lawmakers sent him, he's avoided directly criticizing Republican Sen. Jason Rapert for backing the idea. Rapert, who's the chief Senate sponsor of Beebe's proposed grocery tax cut, has even offered Beebe an out on the contentious issue.
"The governor has his own conscience," Rapert, R-Conway, told reporters. "I think probably the best route would be that he just simply not sign the bill and let it become law, if that's what he decides to do."
Both sides are approaching each other delicately, and with good reason. Republicans realize that Beebe remains popular in the state despite GOP victories at nearly every level in recent years.
Beebe knows his push for expanding health coverage to low-income Arkansans — an idea that has shifted from expanding Medicaid to using private insurance on the health exchange — is dead unless he can win over a party that has based its campaign the past two elections on opposing the federal health care law. The disagreements over social issues may also pale in comparison to the late-session wrangling over the state's budget and a GOP push for tax cuts that the governor says the state can't afford.
That's why Beebe used his State of the State address to the House and Senate to remind lawmakers that he's a product of the legislative branch.
"The legislative branch of government is the first branch of government for a lot of good reasons," Beebe, a 20-year veteran of the state Senate, told lawmakers. "Our founding fathers set it up that way. You're in charge of the public policy of this state, and you are in charge of the money."
Beebe is also making it clear he won't let Republicans have their way on everything, criticizing a GOP-backed plan in the House to put a cap on state spending growth. It's an idea that Beebe warns would "wreak havoc" on the state's budget.
"We've got a great budget system. Why they'd want to monkey with it after it's been good for, what, 70 years and some guy that's been here a little while wants to change something like that because he doesn't like what's going on in Washington, I just don't see that as appropriate," Beebe told lawmakers.
House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman, the "some guy" Beebe referenced, said the disagreement between him and Beebe over the bill isn't personal.
"I think he doesn't like it because it puts more of the budgeting control in the legislative hands and takes it out of the executive's hands," said Westerman, R-Hot Springs. "He's the governor and I respect him. By most people's standards, he's done a good job, but we happen to be in total opposite disagreement on this."
With questions remaining about the state's budget and Medicaid that won't be resolved until the session's final weeks, the biggest tests of the relationship between Beebe and Legislature are yet to come.