A mere 75 days ago, Jim Hendren, the leader of the state Senate, was pushing an anti-vaping bill for a special session. His uncle, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, seemed willing to call the session if his nephew and allies could lock down the votes ahead of time.
President Trump, messiah to the white rural conservative Republican legislator in control of Arkansas, was providing potential political cover by assailing the dangers of vaping to children and backing a federal proposal to ban flavored e-cigarettes.
Unexplained vaping-related deaths were being reported. School superintendents in Arkansas were saying student vaping was an easily concealed epidemic--a popular practice of kids' original use, not as an alternative to tobacco.
A special session seemed to be envisioned by the end of the year because Hendren's bill referred to new regulations to be drawn up in January 2020.
So, forget all that. It's not going to happen.
First, these white rural conservative legislators were always averse instinctively to Hendren's initiative because they don't like tax increases of any sort, and he proposed the affront of taxing vaping at a level even with tobacco.
Second, the vaping industry lined up a solid lobbying cabal to fight Hendren's proposal, which also would have applied to vaping the same restrictions imposed on tobacco in terms of child marketing, indoor use and advertising.
Third, Arkansas has something of a simpleton Legislature looking for and relying on formulaic right-wing solutions, and those don't exist as yet for vaping.
Fourth, Trump, on whom no one can ever rely, tucked tail when the vaping industry did a smart thing: It hit the president where it hurt, on his ego and re-election chances.
It commissioned a poll of vapers in battleground states and asked if they'd be less likely to vote for a politician who supported banning flavored e-cigarettes. All of 96 percent said they'd be less likely.
Suddenly, a president who'd made his initial policy by watching reports of safety concerns about vaping on cable TV got scared and made a new policy based on something much more important--himself.
Fifth, Hutchinson decided that, if he were to call a special session on vaping, he'd insist on including on the agenda his proposal for Arkansas no longer to be among the states--only four--without a hate-crimes law.
Such a law adds extra penalties for crimes stemming from prejudice against groups because of race, ethnicity, religion ... or, fatefully, sexual orientation.
That's largely what Hutchinson's governorship has been all about in a macro sense--continuing the economic modernizing and political moderation of our state that began with Winthrop Rockefeller. He thinks it hamstrings the state's economic growth to be conspicuous with backward-seeming laws, like a state holiday shared by Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee.
He'd like there to be only three states without a hate-crimes law, and for Arkansas to leave that number.
Those white rural conservative Republican legislators who were averse already to a tax increase became doubly averse when the governor proposed they also offend--and in an election year--the evangelical Christian lobby.
The lobby is called the Family Council. It opposes--seriously, it does--extra penalties for committing crimes against homosexual persons based on hatred of homosexuals.
Presumably these conservative Christians could go along with extra punishment for crimes against blacks based on race, or against Muslims based on religion (or at least against Southern Baptists based on religion), or against an ethnic group based on that ethnicity, but not against a gay person for being gay.
Hutchinson has tried without success to reason with Jerry Cox, the head of the Family Council who says including sexual orientation among the hate-targeted victim classes would serve to "legitimize" homosexuality. He also fears religious freedom could be eroded if people believing, by their religion, that homosexuality is a sin were made vulnerable to sanction for those beliefs.
But, you see, a hate-crime law works only as a supplement. Having a hateful thought or disapproving belief would not be a crime, of course.
But burning a house would be a crime. And if prosecutors could establish that the accused burned the house because of hatred of the occupants based on race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation, then they could petition for additional punishment.
A hate-crime law doesn't make the sin of hate a crime. It makes it a possible punishment-multiplier in the event of a conviction on some crimes.
Hendren tells me that his colleagues will have to vote on his vaping bill sometime, likely in the next regular session a year from now--thus as far from the next election as possible.
And Hutchinson presumably will insist in that regular session on a hate-crime bill.
I doubt he'd want to see sexual orientation amended out of it, since that might strike the rest of the country as neither modernization nor moderation.
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 Twitter feed.
Editorial on 12/03/2019
Print Headline: JOHN BRUMMETT: Like so much vapor