Tuesday, November 09, 2010

EDITORIAL >>Mark Darr’s big, bad idea

An endorsement by the voters, no matter how thin the margin, can do wonders for the ego. Mark Darr, the Springdale pizza-parlor owner, was elected lieutenant governor by the margin of 51-49, but Darr took it as a mandate to take charge.

He is going to make life miserable for Gov. Beebe, who carried all 75 counties in one of the biggest landslides of modern times, block the new health-insurance law and pretty much thwart anything that President Obama tries to do.

It is a safe bet that most of the people who voted for Darr did not have that in mind. They did not know who he was, but he had “Republican” beside his name on a day when most voters were just not going to vote for a Democrat whose name was not Mike Beebe.

The Constitution assigns the lieutenant governor, a part-time job, only one duty: to preside over the state Senate when it is convenient and keep business flowing smoothly by enforcing parliamentary and Senate rules. That’s it. When the governor leaves the state, the lieutenant governor is invested with his power for the day or two the governor is gone, an anachronism from the days before instant communication. It was felt a century ago that someone needed to be able to call out the militia in case of an emergency and the governor was out of touch. 

Acting governors have never tried to exploit their brief tenures as the chief executive, although there were aberrations. State Sen. Nick Wilson, who was the president of the Senate and third in line for governor, once went to the governor’s office when both the governor and lieutenant governor happened to be on the other side of the Mississippi River and fired Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. Clinton returned and rehired her the next day.

Another Senate president used his few hours as the acting governor to pardon a couple of friends who had been convicted. Nathan Gordon, who was lieutenant governor for 20 years after World War II, would drive down from Morrilton when the governor left the state and commute the sentences of a number of inmates whose families had sought his clemency.

But that does not seem to be on Mark Darr’s mind. His big objective is to sue on behalf of the state to block the health-insurance law. He said people in Arkansas do not want nationalized health care. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act does not nationalize health care. It has little effect on the health-care system other than to guarantee that people who get care at public or private hospitals and in doctors’ offices are insured and pay for the care they get. Now, if they can’t pay, they can stiff the hospital or the doctor and the costs will be shifted to people who are insured and can pay.

The new law sets up a system in which large employers and individuals will buy insurance in the market, with help from the government in the form of tax credits if they cannot afford the premiums. For those whose incomes are so small they cannot afford to pay anything for private insurance (their family incomes would have to be below 133 percent of the poverty line), government will insure them through Medicaid starting in 2014, just as it does now for most children and the disabled and elderly in long-term care.

The lieutenant governor cannot sue on behalf of the state. That is the attorney general’s prerogative. The attorney general, Dustin McDaniel, says he won’t sue because it would be pointless and a waste of taxpayers’ money. But if Mark Darr wants to hire a lawyer out of his own pocket, like any other citizen, he can do that. It would be an empty gesture since there are an ample number of suits already under way.

It would be another political sideshow. We never have enough of those in Arkansas. That may be one of the better results of the election: improved political entertainment. The lieutenant governor may make little contribution to the quality of government, but Mark Darr promises to divert us from the cares of public life. 

He may cause Gov. Beebe some angst from time to time, but with all that harmony, Beebe’s had it too easy.