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"The fundamental question ... Will pragmatic conservatism survive after Hutchinson?"--Jay Barth political science professor at Hendrix College in a column two weeks ago in the Arkansas Times.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson's challenge is to transform state government so that conservatives will be happy, but not so disrupt it that conservatives face a backlash in a state with more poverty and human needs than most.

It's to keep state government functioning as free of incident as it functioned during all those decades of one-party Democratic rule. But it's to dare not let anything resemble too closely the same old same old, with state government growing in budget and scope every year by inertia's assumption that more money for more programs is of course better.

Asa's assignment: The same, but different. Shaken up, but steady as she goes. An earthquake without tremor.

He thinks the conservative revolution of Arkansas will be healthier and live longer if it doesn't make a mess of things.


"That transformation--how's it coming?"

That's what I asked Hutchinson over the phone a couple of weeks ago in an interview for a magazine article. I was invoking the Office of Transformation he set up, which is sort of like Chad Morris setting up an Office for Beating Alabama.

You don't do it by saying it.

There was a pause, partly because there almost always is a pause when you ask this governor a question.

"You asked a thoughtful question, and I'm just trying to give it the thoughtfulness it deserves," he'd said another time when I asked if he was still on the line.

But this question--a seemingly flippant inquiry as to how all that transformation was coming ... was loaded.

Asa has noises of displeasure gaining decibels on his right flank as he enters the year of his re-election campaign. Those who want disruption--of the kind of the madman Donald Trump, more popular in Arkansas than Asa--haven't seen enough, or any.

Hutchinson has cut income taxes only a fraction and only for the middle-income and low-income taxpayers. That's because he wants to cut only what he can pay for--before he cuts.

His right-wing critics have looked for agency closures. They don't see genuine conservatism until someone in a wheelchair is demonstrating against them. They point out, correctly, that Arkansas spends everything it takes in under the Revenue Stabilization Act, with overages devoted the next year to one-time capital needs or aims. The only way to cut spending, then, they say, is by having no income with which to fashion outgo.

That's procedurally true but inhumanely irresponsible.

"Tough luck, Granny. You should have gone into the nursing home earlier in the state fiscal year. We're broke right now, honey. Have your kids wheel you back in here in July."

These critics on the right don't see a downside to having the front page lathered with squealing by tax receivers about the human pain inflicted because our underprivileged children need food and medicine and our teachers need materials and the prisoners are about to burst through the bars.

Hutchinson has been a little frustrated that he hasn't been able to move faster on what he calls transformation.

An early budget cut that he found--and was proud of--was in the operations of War Memorial Stadium. So he looked at the next year's budget coming out of the Finance and Administration Department, and found no evidence of that cut. The stadium expense had simply been folded into the Parks and Tourism Department budget, which, in the overall, was more than the year before.

It's one thing to move with prudence. It's another not even to get credit for that.

Now, as a kook-right, gun-slinging Sarah Palin wannabe comes up as his primary opponent, Asa is stepping up the conservatizing and the evidence thereof.

He just presented a budget for fiscal 2019 with a much smaller increase than he'd initially proposed. He is calling news conferences to point to actual and sizable reductions in Medicaid spending. He is reveling in the Trump administration's agreement to require Medicaid recipients to work.

He found money under sofa cushions that will enable him to reduce public school spending from the general fund. He has nephew Jim Hendren heading up a task force to afford serious income-tax cuts for the high-end folks. He called on the utilities to use their new federal tax cut to cut gas and electric rates.

And, considering the non-financial matter of Asa's declaring that he thinks open-carry of firearms is the law in Arkansas, I'm beginning to wonder if pragmatic conservatism will survive not after Asa ... but Asa himself.

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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 jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 01/14/2018

Print Headline: Conservatism on line

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