Arkansas Politics

How Conduit for Action Betrayed Conservative Activism in 2016

As discussed in a previous blog post, Conduit for Action seems to have made a second career of chastising others for being insufficiently committed to the Republican platform. Conduit has set itself up as the arbiter of GOP orthodoxy. However, as we pointed out, that claim is hollow,  because Conduit has made its opposition clear to a key part of the GOP platform – tort reform.

Conduit will surely deny this charge. After all, its website proclaims its support of tort reform. But giving lip service to a principle is different from actually supporting that principle in practice. When there have been serious efforts in the legislature or at the ballot box to enact tort reform, Conduit for Action has been eager to find excuse to oppose them.

For example, take the organization’s review of the 2016 ballot initiatives, one of which (Issue 4) was a tort reform measure, Issue 4. Conduit came out strongly against Issue 4.

  • The first of many problem with Conduit’s “analysis” was that it falsely said that Issue 4 set a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages. In fact, the measure set a cap of $250,000 on non-economic damages per defendant. So, for instance, if you had two doctors and a hospital committing malpractice jointly, these  damages would be limited to $750,000.

(Notably, Dan Greenberg (who was then the editor of the Arkansas Project) told me that, as soon as he noticed Conduit’s error, he sent a text to Joe Maynard and Brenda Vassaur-Taylor, Conduit’s leaders, pointing out the factual mistake. Vassaur-Taylor texted him back, saying that she would call him back the next day and correct the error. But she never called him back, and she never fixed the error.)

  • Conduit then objected to this limit by saying it was “too low a maximum value on the life or injury of a human.” This is flatly wrong in several respects, primarily because the amendment allowed the legislature to raise the value of non-economic damages as much as it wanted to. Furthermore, the limit on non-economic damages had no effect on other kinds of recoverable damages, such as medical bills. Furthermore, it is worth noting that Conduit never said what the limit should be. The amendment’s limit would have been much higher than the one in many other states currently, and such a limit seems reasonable to me. If you are going to object to a limit as being too low, then surely it is fair to require that Conduit should have let Arkansans know what a sufficiently high limit would be. When we look at everything that Conduit has done on tort reform over the last year, this objection of Conduit’s is where it starts to look as if it manufactures pretexts to justify a hypocritical stance in opposition to tort reform.
  • Conduit also opposed Issue 4 because it did not “include loser pays [or] address class action reform.” No, but it did not preclude future reform along these lines, either. It’s a pretty weak argument to oppose a bill that makes some good reforms because it does not include all good reforms. The way to judge a public policy proposal is to determine if it improves the current situation and is good on its own merits. It is not realistic to object to something because it does not do everything you want (that is, unless you are merely making up excuses to justify your opposition to it).
  • Conduit also argued that adjustments to damage caps should rest with the people, rather than legislators. I’m not sure what this even means; I think it is fair to call it gibberish. Was Conduit saying that the people should amend the state constitution every time there is a need to adjust non-economic damage caps? Because, to state the obvious, that policy creates much harsher and more rigid damage caps.
  • Conduit also objected to Issue 4 on the grounds that the measure came from “special interests.” In reality, it was supported by doctors, nurses, caregivers, and a lot of ordinary Arkansans who just happen to care about tort reform. I guess if Conduit thinks these are examples of “special interests,” and thus any public policy they support is immediately suspect, then Conduit should object to pretty much every bill introduced in the General Assembly. It would be just as fair (and, more precisely, just as silly and pointless) to object to any measure that Conduit proposes on the grounds that it comes from “special interests.” Conduit — just like everyone else — is a special interest, too.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court yanked Issue 4 off the ballot before it was voted on. The Court found that the use of one word in the initiative — “non-economic” — could be confusing to voters, and therefore that the people shouldn’t be allowed to vote on it. I doubt that I am the only person who thought that the Court’s justification for removing Issue 4 from the ballot was more than a little specious.

If you look closely at Conduit’s claims against Issue 4, you can see a desperate quality about them. Conduit regularly makes hyperbolic claims about tort reform that crumble and dissolve under the slightest examination. To my eye, it seems as if they are looking for any excuse to oppose a solid reform proposal, so as to keep the appearance of adhering to conservative values.

In reality, Conduit has an extensive history of fighting tort reform: Conduit’s objection to Issue 4 is far from an isolated instance of this organization turning its back on tort reform. In future blog posts, I’ll discuss the organization’s other efforts to sabotage tort reform while trying to hide its agenda by supporting sham tort reform efforts.

I should add that I attempted to contact Conduit to understand their perspective about this story. They replied back by email, to insist that the questions I had for them needed to be in written form. I dutifully sent emailed them some written questions. As yet, they have not answered them.

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