Yesterday, I sat in the cheap seats at the legislative hearing on the Arkansas state health insurance exchange, because I wanted to hear how Jay Bradford, the state insurance commissioner, would defend spending millions of dollars in federal funds. But I also wanted the opportunity to distribute a paper the Advance Arkansas Institute had just published about the pitfalls of establishing a state exchange in Arkansas.
Well, I guess I got half of what I wanted. I had asked Rep. David Meeks to request House staff to distribute copies of our paper to the legislators in attendance. Meeks agreed, but was immediately overruled by the committee’s Democratic chairman, Rep. Mike Patterson, who apparently believes that distributing pieces of paper to lawmakers threatens the orderly operation of the committee.
You probably think I’m kidding, but I’m not. I managed to catch the eye of Rep. Ann Clemmer, who was kind enough to distribute a few copies to her colleagues. But the eagle-eyed Patterson caught her in the act. He interrupted Bradford’s testimony in order to call out, “Representative, you’re not supposed to be handing anything out!” But don’t take my word for it—here’s a video of Clemmer getting scolded, graciously shared by The Tolbert Report:
The sudden invention and announcement of this new rule visibly startled several legislators; I was surprised to hear it myself.
For a moment I found myself remembering halcyon days of the comparatively footloose legislative culture of 2007-2010, when I served there. In that bygone era, note-passing among legislators in committee hearings was practically a job requirement. If note production and distribution were a competitive sport, the lawmakers I served with could have outpaced a team of stenographers.
But it is a new day, and we have Patterson to thank: he has protected us all from the menace of unregulated distribution of pieces of paper.
The chairman’s determination to protect legislators from pieces of paper was apparently limitless, but I realized I had another option. It is customary to allow Arkansas citizens to speak publicly at committee meetings. That right to speak was advertised on a large sign at the front of the committee room along with a sign-in sheet. I signed up for a speaking slot, so that I could briefly discuss the reasons why lawmakers should resist the siren-song of grants that would fund a state exchange.
But my effort was, again, in vain. Patterson adjourned the hearing without providing any opportunity for the public to speak.
One of the delights of visiting the legislature is witnessing one thing after another that is best described as a “big joke.” Was the biggest joke the extraordinary danger that is presented by pieces of paper? Was the biggest joke the sign at the hearing that invited the public to speak? Or was the biggest joke Chairman Mike Patterson?
I would be interested to hear your comments on this matter. Unlike some people.