The article across the top of the front page reported that state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson had been federally indicted on allegations of using campaign donations for personal luxury items and falsifying tax returns.
Right below, the article reported that as many as 5,000 poor Arkansas residents would probably lose Medicaid at August’s end because they’d gone three months without clicking a computer to attest — under threat of random spot audits — that they’d been working or seeking work or volunteering.
It gave me an idea. It is to impose a work requirement on state legislators.
We should mandate that legislators get to a computer each month and — under threat of random spot audits — attest that they’ve been working for that big retainer fee the lobbyist gave them or otherwise earning honest pay for that trip to New Orleans or that cruise.
Three months of failing to click and a legislator would be thrown off the rather swell state employee health-insurance plan.
The ever-more-vast corruption in our state Legislature — the taking of taxpayer money for personal use via laundering and kickback, the legal retainers for dubious services, the use of campaign money for personal play-pretties as verified a few years ago in a conviction of Paul Bookout and alleged newly against Hutchinson — would infuriate the fair-minded even if not juxtaposed with a mean-spirited attack by legislators on poor people’s health insurance.
I can hear legislators now. They’re saying I paint all legislators unfairly with one brush of corruption. They’re saying able-bodied poor people ought to work for their health-care handout.
To that I say that I’m talking about the prevailing legislative culture, not each of the 135 elements. And I say that the longtime personal legislative taking of General Improvement Fund money for individual legislators’ own distribution was a full legislative policy, arrogant and absurd on its face even without inviting the inevitable corruption, as it did. I say the legal retainers for lawyer-legislators have been legal, odorous and commonplace for decades. I say the coziness between business lobbyists and legislators has consistently proved impenetrable by well-meaning ethics reform attempts.
And I say that withholding Medicaid as punishment to a poor, able-bodied and unemployed man is mean rather than corrective, and probably a violation of federal law. It’s even worse when the punishment is meted out for the real sin of not being computer-savvy.
I also can hear legislators and political insiders saying Hutchinson is innocent until proven guilty. But that’s a mere concept and not a practice, to hear Donald Trump’s main man in Arkansas, Bud Cummins, himself a former U.S. attorney, tell it.
On the afternoon of Hutchinson’s indictment, his pal Cummins put out this statement: “We rely on the right to a jury trial to provide balance and fairness to complex criminal prosecutions, but in truth, the vast majority of those charged (95-plus percent) plead guilty and never get any trial at all. Many of those plead guilty simply because they lack the financial resources to bear the real cost of a modern criminal defense in a complex matter. At the request of friends, colleagues and family, I have agreed to serve as the trustee of a legal defense fund to receive contributions from those who want to [e]nsure that Jeremy Hutchinson has the resources necessary to mount an adequate defense.”
Isn’t that sweet? The president’s campaign chairman in Arkansas is reaching out to help Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s needy nephew because the system is stacked by economic realities in favor of the government for which Cummins formerly was a prosecutor.
It’s good if political pals of Jeremy Hutchinson want to ante up to his defense fund, especially if it’s true as alleged that he had to swipe from campaign donations even to subscribe to Netflix. I remember a few middle-class folks around Bill Clinton who got roped into that Ken Starr investigation and set up defense funds to help them afford lawyers.
But let’s be clear on what’s being said here.
It’s that a well-connected politico liked by insiders deserves financial help when accused by an abusive federal government of wrongdoing, but that it’s too bad if others simply plead guilty because they can’t afford otherwise.
It’s that poor people deserve diddly from a mean-spirited state government except maybe admittance to a crowded emergency room on the hospital’s tab if they get deathly sick.
What would I have us do about all that? We could wait around for all the bad guys to go to jail, I suppose. But the operative democratic recourse upon seeing corruption and meanness and not liking it is to vote it out.
That’s provided those offering themselves as replacements give you — by your insistence — some reasonable basis for believing they’ll be better.
There are 135 women and men in Arkansas who are capable and neither corrupt nor mean and thus suitable for honorable state legislative service. I just know there are. And another 135 when those are term-limited.
I’m not sure how far we could go with that, but, surely, we can do better for a generation or so.
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@example.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.