Brummett Online

OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: On the lookout for over-reach

We might call it the anti-overreach movement, though "movement" might be an overreach of phrasing at this early juncture.

A more precise and properly measured description would be "a percolating resistance to certain aspects of otherwise unchallenged one-party ideological control."

Maybe we'll stick with movement.

We saw a glimpse in 2022 in Kansas where people approximately as conservative as those in Arkansas rejected a ballot measure favored by Republican legislators seeking to declare in the state Constitution that there was no right to abortion in the state. The outcome was not a ratification of abortion, but pushback against state Republican legislative anti-abortion strictness that voters believed would go too far if not checked by a constitutional backstop.

Early each year Talk Business and Politics publishes online a series of pieces taking stock of the "state of the state" in Arkansas. Each year I take part by offering a contribution. This year, to be posted sometime today, I report on this movement of sorts in Arkansas.

While I could have focused on the petition effort for a proposed abortion amendment, which seeks to put exceptions on the state's abortion ban and rein in more fervent conservative Republican legislators, I found a better focus. It was the trans-partisan, trans-philosophy coalition that formed to get the state's Freedom of Information Act into a constitutional amendment form. It will be on the general election ballot if enough petition signatures can be obtained.

Its impetus was plainly against over-reach. Gov. Sarah Sanders got so imperious in her resentment of people finding out things she didn't want them finding out, by using the information demands authorized under the FOI statute, that she proposed a bill exempting her security matters from the law's required disclosures and keeping state agency information private on policy matters that were not in final-decision form.

In other words, citizens couldn't find out what was coming until she decided what would be fully upon them.

That was considered over-reach even by her Republican legislative choir, which gave her the personal security exemption but axed the rest.

The spectacle offended people, including such activist ones as Republican-turned-independent Nate Bell, veteran citizen-initiative guru David Couch, moderate Democrat Clarke Tucker, veteran legislation-drafter Jen Standerfer and firebrand libertarian-minded law professor Robert Steinbuch. They didn't agree on a lot, but they agreed to work together on the imperative at hand, which was to pose a challenge to legislation that went too far--even with Sanders getting only half of what she wanted.

There are three points to make.

One is that these petition efforts by citizens' groups, already high achievers this century in Arkansas with approval of a higher minimum wage, medical marijuana and more casinos, are experiencing even more activity this year, perhaps even momentum. The reason may be that the Republican political control of conventional state politics has so routed Democrats that Democrats don't have the numbers to stop or even bother a perceived power abuse. And you know what they say about the arrogance of power unchecked.

The second is that it seems true that, with the right issue and the right mix of well-intended and competent people, agreements can be fashioned in the interest of good government among those otherwise philosophically and politically at odds. These FOI-amendment collaborators have so enjoyed the work and the discovery of each other that they talk about staying together in some form as a watchdog against over-reach. They may never again find a galvanizing issue like freedom of information, but it won't hurt for them to stay alert.

The third point is that, somehow, Congress must discover these joys of compartmentalized constructive agreement among otherwise alienated people. Right now, for example, a compromise measure allowing President Joe Biden to shut down the border during certain rates of crossing--an authority he says he'd exercise at once if the compromise passes--is opposed by many Republicans because, they say, Biden already has the authority. They also oppose it because Donald Trump wants them to do so because any progress on dealing with the border would inconvenience his campaign and the ego disorder that fuels it.

But, if you really wanted to try to solve the problem, wouldn't you want to agree to make that authority explicit?

If you really wanted to call timeout on the out-of-control border, wouldn't you be willing to engage in legislation you believe duplicative to make sure agreed-to steps would be taken?

Closer to home: If the governor and the Corrections Board agreed that the state prison system needs to house more prisoners to ease the burden on county jails, wouldn't they want to work on that together rather than argue and litigate--with and against each other?

Anyway, it's good to find some local folks getting along and pushing back. May they multiply.

Meanwhile, David Couch has filed another proposed citizens' initiative--this one to streamline and make easier the citizens' initiative process.

This seems to be the season in Arkansas for that hollow motto--regnat populus, meaning "the people rule"--to gain actual currency. The message to those who over-reach seems to be "look out."

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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