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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: On the agenda for January

by John Brummett | December 8, 2022 at 3:01 a.m.

Bart Hester arrived in the state Senate a decade ago, not long out of the Razorback bullpen where he was the catcher. That's not to say he didn't get into some games and earn a varsity letter.

He came from rural Benton County as a wide-eyed, cherubic and naïve conservative whose views were strong on the surface and stayed there.

Now he is set to become president pro tem of the Senate in January to work with a new Trumpian governor to usher real conservatism into this heretofore Beebe-Asa land of incrementalism, pragmatism and centrism.

Hester got elected the Senate leader either because he is liked by colleagues or easily run over by these colleagues who like him.

On Monday, he joined third-time House Speaker Matthew Shepherd in an appearance before the Little Rock Political Animals Club. The point was for the two men to set the stage for the legislative session beginning in January.

Shepherd ran late because he was presiding over the House's biennial organizational session. But Hester was there on time, prompting one observer to say that the media already had its story.

Shepherd is a veteran legislative leader with center-tilted conservatism and a lawyer-trained circumspection and pragmatism. All of that makes him a far better leader for the unwieldly House than newsmaker for the media.

Hester, though matured over the last decade, and under-estimated by me, I'm told, still has that innocent instinct simply to say what he thinks without thinking what he says. A headline-maker, in other words.

True to form, Hester went first on a question about school choice and vowed that he, for one, would be "very aggressive" in moving on that.

Shepherd? The truth is that I was busy putting on Twitter what Hester had said, and nominating him for conservative of the month, and had to ask Shepherd afterward what he'd said.

He, perhaps mildly perturbed to be tuned out, kindly related that he'd said there are a lot of different ideas about how to go on that issue and that the House would first need to flesh all that out before he'd venture any guess on how the issue would fare.

See the difference?

So, I sought out Hester afterward to ask what he meant by "very aggressive," which promoted three responses, two telling.

One, not telling, was that that he favors the state's per-pupil expenditure following the child wherever the child attends. The Arizona way, he said.

That is popular as conservative theory, but not universally in rural Arkansas where the local school may be the biggest employer and the superintendent a leading influencer.

The second was that Hester told me he actually is not as aggressive as some of his colleagues who want to convert to full school choice all at once. Hester said instant change of that magnitude would crash the system.

What was telling was that he'd learned a little about policy nuance and pragmatism.

And, third, he said he'd known the second he'd said "very aggressive" that "they," meaning media people with their recorders and pens and pads and dad-blamed follow-up questions, would pounce on that "very aggressive" phrase. He said sometimes he says things and, as he hears those things coming from himself, realizes potential problems.

What's telling about that is that he now has a bit of media savvy. A better form of media savvy would be to realize potential ramifications of what one says before one says it, not as one is saying it or just as one has said it.

Sometimes, an experienced politician will choose early and tactically not to roil a situation that will roil soon enough.

But, in truth, Hester's lip-looseness in this context wasn't bad. Everybody knows school choice is coming. Everybody knows superintendents are geared up to fight hard against it. Everybody knows the public education lobby doesn't need Hester expressing aggressiveness for it to motivate and mobilize.

On another issue, that being crime, Hester blurted that no one wanted to build a bigger new state prison more than he does to house violent prisoners for their full sentences. Shepherd said ... well, I don't recall, and I didn't want to ask him twice in one day to fill in for me what I tuned out from him.

Here's the top of the legislative agenda for next year: Fighting crime, mainly with longer sentences and bigger prisons; introducing school choice to an extent probably limited by superintendents' power; and cutting income taxes as much as budgeting will allow, and certainly not so much that the State Police would take a reduction in personnel and equipment.

When a man from Conway, the college town, asked Hester and Shepherd what was to be done for higher education in the coming session, Hester said he was going to be all about K-12, crime and tax cuts. He likened higher education to a market that could fend for itself.

I don't recall what Shepherd said, but I'm sure it was fine.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.



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