Brawner

Arkansans are getting an idea this year of what a less-part-time Legislature might look like. Next year, they’ll vote on whether to make the Legislature less-part-time permanently.

Under a proposed amendment that will be on the ballot in 2024, lawmakers could call themselves into special session through a joint proclamation of the House speaker and the Senate president pro tempore, or through a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate. Legislators referred the amendment to voters.

This will occur following a year, 2021, when lawmakers have spent a lot of days at the Capitol. They also have asserted their branch’s power, largely in response to Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s extraordinary emergency actions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Legislature convened January 11, which is about when it normally does every odd-numbered year. One-hundred eight days later on April 30, lawmakers went home – temporarily.

They didn’t have the census numbers needed to redraw the state’s congressional districts, so they recessed rather than adjourning. If they had adjourned, they could not return to the Capitol unless Hutchinson called them into special session.

By recessing, they could return when called by their own leaders.

Lawmakers returned to the Capitol September 29 for what Hutchinson hoped would be a three-day session. In his best-case scenario, legislators would have reached a consensus on district maps before arriving, with little debate required during the session.

They’re still debating the maps. Meanwhile, the resolution creating the recess allowed legislators to consider COVID-related bills, which they are doing.

We don’t know when they’ll go home. Regardless, soon afterwards Hutchinson will call them into special session to reduce the state’s top income tax rate. Again, he wants a three-day session. He doesn’t want to debate anything else.

But Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, plans to introduce legislation based on Texas’ abortion ban. He’ll need a two-thirds vote to add it to the call, which he’ll get.

Other lawmakers may push their own bills.

All of this means lawmakers will spend a good chunk of 2021 at the Capitol.

Remember, Hutchinson also called an August special session to amend a law banning school districts from requiring masks. Lawmakers quickly said no and went home.

The Arkansas Constitution’s checks and balances give lawmakers the upper hand legislatively and the governor the upper hand day to day. Like the president, the governor has a veto, but it can be overridden with a simple majority vote – the same percentage that passed the bill in the first place. On the other hand, the governor is at the Capitol managing state government year-round, while legislators serve only part-time.

Under the Constitution, legislative sessions are limited to 60 days, though lawmakers can vote to extend them and routinely do.

But the number of legislators’ meaningful days at the Capitol has been increasing.

In 2008, Arkansas voters approved a legislatively referred amendment creating a fiscal session. Lawmakers meet in even-numbered years to discuss budgetary matters but can vote to discuss other issues. Then in 2014, Arkansas voters gave lawmakers the authority to approve state agency administrative rules, giving legislators more power between sessions.

Lawmakers are paid a base salary and are paid for each day they serve at the Capitol. They’re also reimbursed for mileage and other expenses. It’s a decent income, but they’re not getting rich. Many legislators have other jobs and businesses, which is a real-world incentive to limit their days in session.

But at some point, between the days they meet and the time they spend responding to constituents, this becomes a full-time gig. Many legislators would argue it already is.

Let’s return to the proposal before voters next year. Arkansas is one of only 14 states where the Legislature cannot call itself into special session, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. However, it’s also one of only six states where a veto can be overridden by a simple majority.

Would the governor make that trade: letting the Legislature call itself into special session in exchange for a more powerful veto?

The Legislature put only the first part on the ballot. Next November, voters will help answer this question: How part-time is a part-time Legislature?

They can base their decision either way on 2021, when the answer has been, “Not very.”

Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist who focuses on Arkansas politics, and whose work appears in 16 Arkansas publications. He is a regular contributor to Talk Business and a frequent panelist on Arkansas PBS’s public affairs show, “Arkansas Week." He publishes a blog, independentarkansas.com . Email him at brawnersteve@mac.com . Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner .

 

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