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BRUMMETT ONLINE: Dysfunction’s dirty pool

by John Brummett | October 18, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

The Hutchinson-Hendren dynasty in Arkansas finds itself under increasing attack from the far right.

The development raises the specter of a local increment of the Republican dysfunction now raging on the national level between the party’s so-called mainstream and hard-right Bannon-ites.

“Specter of an increment” — that’s a sufficient hedge, don’t you think?

Gov. Asa Hutchinson — conservative enough to prosecute Bill Clinton’s impeachment, lead major federal agencies for George W. Bush and earn the hatred of Democrats — has performed the office of governor with center-right pragmatism.

He has toned down an anti-gay bill, resisted a bathroom bill, capped a tax-cut bill and held out for additional concealed-carry training for persons newly authorized to carry guns on college campuses.

State Sen. Jim Hendren of Gravette, the next president pro tem of the Senate, is the governor’s nephew — the son of the governor’s sister. He is a fighter-pilot military conservative who has moved from what once qualified as the far right toward pragmatism. He has sidled along the philosophical continuum to help Uncle Asa. While helping Uncle Asa, he seems to have come to value pragmatic problem-solving over right-wing flame-throwing.

I believe I can safely say that he has come to accept the role of a party in power as different from the role of a minority party lobbing grenades. He sees a legislator’s role as different if he is in a tiny majority under a Democratic governor than if his beloved uncle becomes the Republican governor and he is in a heavy Republican majority. In the latter circumstance, he seems to accept that he must take responsibility to balance budgets and keep the state from embarrassing itself to the national and international business communities.

If I’ve ruined Hendren on his right flank by suggesting that he is practical and responsible, a grownup, then I apologize.

Lately Hendren has been in a mild Twitter debate with a right-wing group — Conduit for Action, to the right of the Koch brothers — that issues legislator report cards on the purity of conservative voting records. He disputes the criteria for assigning conservative purity. He’s seen the same vote contribute to a “B” and a “D,” depending on who is doing the scoring.

Conduit’s latest public salvo falls somewhere between fascinating and hilarious, and I simply must tell you about it.

It raises guilt by association. It suggests that a liberal can’t compile accurate or honest data. It seems to say consultants’ reports are like the news media in the way the right-wing views both … they’re fake, that is, if you don’t like what they say.

To these people, The New York Times can’t report a fact — unless it’s about Harvey Weinstein, I’d wager. To these people, a consulting firm with a staff member who posted a pro-Obama, anti-Trump tweet can’t compile trusted data comparing states on what and how they tax and what and how they exempt from taxation, and on what might be the dynamically scored economic effects of this tax or that exemption.

First, Conduit accused Hutchinson of being a tax-raiser, on this basis: There was a push in the last session to exempt military retirement pensions from income taxes. Hutchinson had already drawn his budget, which included income-tax reductions. He said he wanted the loss of revenue from the military retirement exemption offset by other revenue-generating measures, to keep his budget balanced. Conduit considers that to be calling for increasing taxes. It isn’t. It’s making a budget that includes a tax cut and then wanting to supply the rules of addition and subtraction if someone tries to change the best-laid plan.

But then Conduit accused the Hutchinson-Hendren dynasty — well, Hendren mostly — of “using your money to hire a raging liberal to guide Arkansas tax policy.”

Why, that sounds positively sinister.

Here’s what it means: Hutchinson is committed to reducing income taxes to the extent he believes the state can afford. He has reduced marginal income tax rates on low and middle incomes. For his second term, assuming he gets to it, he will move into harder territory. To prepare, he has done what governors love to do, which is set up a task force to study and recommend how he might proceed.

Hendren, naturally, handled the legislation to set up the task force and is a co-chair of it.

One thing such task forces invariably do is put out requests for proposals for consulting services — in this case from firms that have some known record of expertise in the complexities the task force confronts.

By 15-to-1, the task force voted to hire PFM, a national public financial advisory firm, to compile comparative state data on taxes and collect data relevant to the task force’s assignment to both simplify the state tax code and cut taxes. The contract was for $312,750.

PFM assigned as project manager a fellow named Randall Bauer. Conduit got hold of Bauer’s Twitter feed and saw that he’d once said Barack Obama was the light and Donald Trump the darkness. It found he had retweeted the Brookings Institution and the National League of Cities, which, Conduit charged, were known liberal propagandists.

Conduit put all that on Hendren. So I got hold of Hendren, who said, no, he hadn’t scoured the Twitter feeds of the consultant’s staff. He said the firm’s main work would be simple data collection.

But he said that, even if the consultant threw in some liberal claptrap about how rich people ought to pay higher taxes and poor people lower taxes, it wouldn’t matter any more than the recommendation of that health-care task force consultant two years ago that called for saving Medicaid money by converting all of Medicaid to managed care.

The state did not convert all of Medicaid to managed care, in case you were wondering.

If modern-day Republicans paid any attention to data, they’d do a lot of things differently.

Gubernatorial task forces are set up for one purpose — to look busy and buy time until the policymakers in charge try to do what they were going to try to do all along.

Hutchinson and Hendren are still plenty Republican enough — plenty conservative enough — to cut income taxes. But, by being in power with the responsibility thereof, they seem apt to apply arithmetic now and then. It’s that acquiescence to math that has the extreme right riled.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.


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