OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Not in reasonable times

Amendment 33 to the state Constitution was ratified by the voters in 1942 for the surely naïve aim of keeping politics out of higher-education and prison matters.

You can't fully do that even in reasonable times, which these aren't.

I've always held the conceptual position that the Arkansas governor's power should not be weakened as it is by constitutional provisions diffusing authority among state agencies. It's a policy derived from our state's populist and cussedly independent heritage of fearing centralized power in a governor or anyone else.

A conceptual position honestly held must still apply even when Arkansas is beset by the tragedy of its current governor. If this excuse for one wants to pile prisoners on top of each other without sufficient guards, and if she wants to slander the state Corrections Board when it simply says let's slow down a second, then that's on the voters for electing the governor they elected.

But the fact is that we have Amendment 33. And constitutions are supposed to be abided by, even by national political figures wanting to flout ours for a national political profile.

Amendment 33's ratification came nigh unto a century before anyone heard of a Donald Trump creation named Sarah Sanders who would use the governor's office purely for grandstanding to fire up a right-wing Republican base and advance her national political standing in an uncommonly polarized political time in America.

If she wants to preen for a national audience about her directive to toss more bad guys into state prison forthwith no matter the state Correction Board's concern about not having enough guards and inviting lawsuits, and if she wants to call a news conference to slander Correction Board members as protectors of crime for not kowtowing to her and her wingman in demagoguery, Attorney General Tim Griffin, and if she wants to say that she and her prison director intend to run the prisons no matter what any ancient constitutional amendment says ... well, there seems to be no stopping the queen of manufactured bluster when there is a television camera in the world.

A state physically cannot on one hand elect Sanders governor, and, on the other hand, abide strictly by Amendment 33. Politics cannot be kept out of anything if she is occupying the Governor's Mansion. She is, through and through, a political beast devoted to Trumpian performance politics, Trumpian resentment politics and Trumpian wedge politics.

What happened back in the early stages of World War II was that the governor, Homer Adkins, presumed to try to purge the membership of the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees because it wouldn't oblige his desire to fire J. William Fulbright as the U of A's president.

The people rose up and adopted Amendment 33 saying all existing powers granted individually to the commissions of state institutions of higher learning--and to the prisons--would be protected.

Prisons were added because the state has an infamous history of political corruption in its corrections system. It's better now, if imperfect, thanks in part to a federal compliance coordinator who worked on-site in the 1970s and '80s.

But I suspect it's about to get much more crowded, because performance politics currently trumps quaint local constitutional nitpicking.

So, to review the last week or so: The governor's Arizona-imported prison director, who has said he works for the governor and not any board, hit up the board to approve adding across several facilities more than 600 inmates now backed up in county jails--an unacceptable circumstance, let us make clear. The board, which had been blindsided by the proposal, approved a little of the plan but did not act that day on most of it, owing to its awareness that it was over-capacity already for the number of front-level guards, who are key to imprisonment techniques, on staff. The governor, without talking to board members, called a news conference to blast the board members as representative of a tired and failed status quo and boast that Arkansas would not be soft on crime, at least while she was governor.

Boy, she told them, didn't she?

Board chairperson Benny Magness--a former sheriff who was appointed to the board originally by Sanders' father, who was a much better governor--sent the governor a seven-page letter objecting to her characterizations and charges.

He did not publicly release the letter, but someone leaked it--perhaps someone who wanted to ridicule it.

Now the governor is saying we need prison board members who fight crime rather than bother her with long letters with legal citations and stuff.

Reason could be applied positively here. But reason tends to get suspended when a state's voters choose to sacrifice their state for service to Trumpiness.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected]. Read his @johnbrummett feed on X, formerly Twitter.

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