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Wills: ‘Inside the Tobacco Tax Vote’

Updated: Apr 15

Well, golly, for some reason those links to House Speaker Robert “Robbie” Wills‘ magnum opus blog post about the meanness of Arkansas Republicans, much discussed in the Arkansas mediasphere these last few days, just aren’t working anymore. The link keeps going to this “Page Not Found” message, which I guess means Wills’ post-tobacco-vote cri de coeur is lost to the sands of time….

Or is it? Oh, look, I found the text right here. Whew, that was a close one! Good thing The Arkansas Project was on hand to curate this historically important document. I’m a hero!

Click ‘More’ below to read Wills’ original post in full. (UPDATE: Link seems to be working again. What a relief!)

Inside the Tobacco Tax Vote

By Robbie Wills,

Originally posted February 5, 2009

“I know these decisions won’t be easy.  But you didn’t run for an easy job.  If it were easy, anyone could sit in your chair.  You asked for this job and it’s supposed to be hard!  Your personality, principles and patience will be tested. You’ll be outside your comfort zone on a regular basis – I guarantee it.  You’ll be tempted to lose your temper..”  Address to the House, January 12, 2009

That’s what I said on the day we opened the legislative session, and I repeated it today as we prepared to vote on HB 1204 (Tobacco Tax).  Today was one of those days.  Many members, myself included, didn’t sleep much last night.  While I worked the phones to make sure our 75 votes stuck, others sat up pondering how they would vote.  Throughout the morning I saw tears, anger, determination and relief as members wrestled with their decisions.  By 1:30 p.m., when we gaveled in the session, you could cut the tension with a knife.

For the most part, dignity and decorum prevailed in this debate.  Unfortunately, a few opponents showed a complete lack of respect for the House of Representatives by heckling Rep. Gregg Reep, the sponsor of the bill, with derisive laughter, hoots and catcalls.  It was out of line.  A few of them have since apologized.  Some don’t seem to think they did anything wrong.  Voting “no” on HB 1204 is certainly understandable.  We won’t always agree on the right thing to do.  I respect everyone’s opinion, even when I don’t agree with it.  What I don’t understand is letting emotion and ideology damage the relationships we have and discredit the work that we do.

Case in point:  I saw a violently ill member pull himself off his sickbed and drag himself  to the House chamber to cast his “yes” vote because we couldn’t find a single solitary opponent to “pair” with him.  Pairing is a time-honored legislative professional courtesy extended to members who, for whatever reason, are unable to attend a voting session.  The absent member and the present member both sign a form, witnessed and notarized, that locks in their votes.  This way, the absent member’s vote counts.  It ensures that member’s 28,000 constituents can be represented on that particular issue.  It’s also the decent thing to do.  In a shocking display of pettiness, the leaders of the opposition enforced a strict “no pair” policy.  Therefore, each opponent we approached to pair with our sick colleague turned us down flat.  One said they’d been told by “leadership” that a “pair” would be treated the same as a “yes” vote, and “there’d be hell to pay.”  Some new members were simply confused by the whole process.  So, the sickly supporter had to come to the chamber to cast his vote – the 75th and decisive “yes” vote, as it turned out.

I know to legislative observers all this seems like silly stuff.  Debate? Pairing?  What’s the big deal?  Well, in a chamber of 100 politicians – each with their own personality, ego, and priorities – we have to have a set of guiding principles that govern our actions.  We have written rules to govern process and debate, but it’s the unwritten rules that really hold the institution together.  Today, we got a peek over the edge of a cliff (so to speak) at how things could be if we let partisanship and pettiness drag us down.  Thankfully, most members didn’t like what they saw and are moving in the direction of respect, cooperation and dignity.

After the vote, I personally thanked as many opponents as I could find for their consideration and willingness to listen.  I told them we’ll have many opportunities to work together on other legislation.  This was one vote of many yet to come in the session.  We have to move on, not look back, and learn from our experience.  I’m confident we can do just that.

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