The upcoming legislative session will feature lively debates on a range of major fiscal issues, from Medicaid expansion to tax cuts to tightening an already pretty tight state budget.
But social conservatives see hope for passing a handful of measures that have eluded them in the pass. Success might hinge on a small coalition of conservative lobbyists.
I use the term lobbyist loosely here because these activists don’t fit the normal mold of most lobbyists that frequent the marbled halls of the state Capitol. Most others represent some business interests. They meet over expensive lunches to discuss how a particular bill would benefit or harm their clients. These lunches are often followed by campaign contributions that certainly do not hurt their chance of getting the opportunity to plead their case.
There’s nothing illegal about it as long as it remains transparent and all of the rules are followed. But things are far different for the social conservative crowd, which includes such fixtures as Jerry Cox with the Family Council of Arkansas, Larry Page of the Arkansas Family and Ethics Council and Rose Mimms from Arkansas Right to Life.
It was almost comical a few years ago when former Arkansas lottery director Ernie Passailaigue referred to Cox as a "well paid lobbyist" in refuting some claim Cox made regarding the lottery.
Instead of money, this group exerts influence based largely on its grassroots network of conservative activists. When legislators feel this group speaks for the views of voters in their district, they tend to listen.
In addition, both Cox and Mimms ask candidates to answer questionnaires during campaigns. The questions usually are based on issues they plan to advance during the next legislative session. Although not quite a pledge, the answers candidates give on the questionnaires can be used to hold legislators accountable for the positions they take.
A problem for these groups this election season was the reluctance of many Democrats to complete the surveys. Some candidates were advised by their consultants not to complete them because opponents might use their answers against them. This was a departure from previous years when conservative Democrats were happy to complete the surveys and often used them as evidence of their conservative views in districts that leaned conservative though voters often elected Democrats.
Twenty-three Republican Senate candidates completed Arkansas Right to Life’s voter survey while only three Democratic Senate candidates completed one. On the House side, 56 Republicans filled out the pro-life group’s survey while only 11 Democrats completed it. These numbers were similar for Family Council’s voter guide.
You get a good idea of the issues Right to Life will be advancing from the group’s survey. It asked candidates where they stand on measures restricting abortions after the point at which a fetus can experience pain, on prohibiting Obamacare funds to be used for abortions in Arkansas and on prohibiting chemical abortions performed by a doctor via a webcam.
Mimms has said her group will work to pass legislation encompassing each issue in the 2013 regular session and that answers to the survey will assist the group in gauging support.
Republicans will have a 21-14 advantage in the Senate. In the House, Republicans will have the narrowest of majorities — 51-48-1. Additionally, Republicans failed to gain a majority on the 20-member House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee where most abortion bills are referred.
In the last session, this committee killed all but one pro-life measure it considered. Next year, it will take two pro-life Democrats plus all nine Republicans to pass bills that Right to Life favors. The only Democrat assigned to the committee who completed the Right to Life survey was Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, who clashed with the group two years ago over an amendment to legislation it supported.
For success in the upcoming session, social conservatives will have to hold almost all of the Republicans and bring enough Democrats on board to get their bills through committee. It is possible, but it will certainly be one of the subplots to watch.
Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com.