Tuesday, January 13, 2015

EDITORIAL >> A good start for governor

We do not remember a new Arkansas governor who struck a discordant note in his inaugural address, and Asa Hutchinson did not disappoint yesterday either. Dare we hope that Governor Hutchinson will be the pragmatic, problem-solving, careful leader that the voters of Arkansas seem to want? We say that this is what voters want because they have seemed inordinately pleased with Mike Beebe, who embodied those qualities almost to perfection and who left after eight years with the highest approval rating of any chief executive in America.

He didn’t venture to do big or divisive things, so history will not accord him greatness like, say, Dale Bumpers, but Beebe kept the ship afloat and on course for eight years almost without rancor during particularly partisan and rancorous times. He just avoided partisanship and argument, refusing both to attack Republican extremists and to defend the divisive leader of his own party, Barack Obama, or his works, although they generally have benefited Arkansas and made the governor look good.

It will take a while to see if Asa Hutchinson fits the mold, but his middle-of-the-road campaign, the careful development of his executive team since November and his subdued inaugural words suggest that this is exactly what he intends.

But his party now controls both houses of the legislature, this time by margins so big that it can pass whatever it wants. It did that with Beebe and then overrode his occasional and muted vetoes. The courts—federal and state—threw out those acts because they violated the state or federal constitutions, or both. We are almost certain to see those again—on abortion, voting rights, public ethics, perhaps guns and official religious exercises—and they will follow the same course through the courts, this time no doubt with the governor’s signature rather than his veto. Hutchinson is a Republican and will not be caught trying to thwart the party’s agenda.

The substance of policy on government services—the matters that actually affect the health, opportunity and prosperity of people—is where we hope and expect Asa Hutchinson will exercise the sober judgment that he has seemed to evince since he entered the governor’s race. He took only mild and nuanced objections to the policy proposals of his Democratic opponent and his own policy ideas were generally unexceptionable.

There were two big disputes—tax cuts and the continued administration of the biggest feature of the Affordable Care Act—the badly belabored Obamacare. Both Hutchinson and his opponent, Mike Ross, said they would cut taxes, but they disagreed on the amount that was practical without harming essential public services like education, public protection and health care.

Hutchinson intends to make a modest reduction in income taxes for those earning between $20,000 and $75,000 a year. The brackets are regressive now and Hutchinson’s changes will help slightly, although the economic benefit, both to individuals and the state, will be small. Taxpayers will forfeit part of the modest tax savings to the IRS.

The question was whether the state treasury could afford the lost revenue, $50 million next year $100 million in fiscal 2017. It can’t and it can. The state cannot lose that amount and still meet the state’s pressing budget needs, like housing the vast and growing prison population. But it hasn’t been able to afford it the past two years and the legislature cut taxes anyway. The state will continue to keep state inmates jammed in local jails, perhaps send a bunch to private lockups in Louisiana, release prisoners early and send other criminals home upon their arrest. The state will push that crisis down the road—to 2016, 2017, 2020, whenever—and do the same with other needs. There is no crisis if you don’t recognize it. In that sense, the state can afford Hutchinson’s or any tax cut.

But Hutchinson has said he was studying the possibility—recommended by Beebe—of postponing for a few years a couple of tax cuts that are already programmed—tax cuts for wealthy investors and manufacturers. The Republicans who passed those bills are not likely to be receptive, but it will be a test of the governor’s persuasion.

The most critical issue is continuation of Medicaid coverage for some 250,000 (by summer) Arkansans. Mike Ross said he would continue the program—it was drafted by Republican moderates in 2013 with Beebe’s approval—but Hutchinson has been noncommittal. Perhaps half the Republican caucus in both the House and Senate ran against the Medicaid program, so it will take a bravura effort by Hutchinson to get it passed for a third time. He has said he would announce his plans for the “private option” later this month.

It is widely expected that he will seek to continue the program, though he will have to be seen as insisting on changes in it so that it does not appear that he is a supporter of Obamacare or Barack Obama. It is almost essential that he continue it if he is to avoid wrecking the budget, which depends upon the massive infusion of federal assistance to the state insurance program for the elderly, disabled and poor. Hospitals, the medical profession and business groups are pushing to continue it.

His brief inaugural carried this hopeful and pointed message: “And while we strive to work and get ahead, we must not forget our responsibility to provide a safety net for those particularly in need.” There is only one safety net that is threatened: health insurance for people who earn too little to afford it without government help.