How often should the legislature convene? It would take a constitutional amendment to change. | Arkansas Blog

How often should the legislature convene? It would take a constitutional amendment to change.

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HENDREN: Wants to dump the pointless fiscal session. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • HENDREN: Wants to dump the pointless fiscal session.

Here's an idea that has mostly gotten lost in the shuffle in the legislative shenanigans this year: Back in November, Sen. Jim Hendren filed Senate Joint Resolution 1, which would propose a constitutional amendment to eliminate the fiscal session of the legislature. Sounds like a good idea to me!

However, we're hearing rumblings that some in the House may want to go the other direction, potentially proposing an amendment to require the legislature to meet in a full, regular session every year instead of every other year. (UPDATE: The idea is being floated by Rep. Andy Davis, who hasn't drafted or filed anything yet. More here.)

Since 2010, in addition to the 60-day regular session in odd-numbered years, the legislature has also met for a 30-day session ostensibly only devoted to budget issues in even-numbered years (that's thanks to a legislatively referred amendment to the constitution approved by voters in 2008). The legislature can extend those limits via supermajority votes.

Under Hendren's proposal, the legislature would revert back to the old practice of just convening for the 60-day session every two years. That limit could be extended by a two-thirds vote from each chamber. And — as is the case now — the governor can always call a special session if need be.

Hard to argue with the Hendren measure. It's not all that clear what value the fiscal sessions have added. The state still budgets on a biennial basis, so they're really a massive exercise in rubber stamping (or occasionally re-hashing policy decisions that have already been made). The temptation to slip in special-topic legislation has been predictable as lobbyists enjoy another bite at the apple. Not to mention, legislators have routinely larded up budget bills with "special language" amendments that amount to de facto legislation. Arguably, this is unconstitutional — introducing substantive, non-fiscal legislation in a fiscal session demands two-thirds approval. Legislators have been, let's say, less than strict on this matter. It's an almost comic assault on transparency and good government — sneaking laws through in non-codified language slapped on to large, complex budget appropriations. Fiscal sessions have also created additional opportunities for chaotic drama (and corresponding vote greasing) around approving routine appropriations, with shut-down threats becoming commonplace. The last two were dominated by a small gaggle of senators threatening to shut down the entire Medicaid program unless the majority caved to their demands to end the private option program.

The fiscal session costs taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. Pass.

The problem that Hendren's proposal is going to run in to is that lobbyists and some of the thirstier legislators love when the Capitol critters convene. Indeed, this is no secret if you've spent any time at the Capitol: There are a significant number of legislators who really dig the taxpayer-funded per diems and assorted other goodies that come when the legislature meets. They guard those goodies fiercely.

Which brings us to that rumor (see update here; Davis is the one floating the idea). One legislator told the Times that some members of the House are plotting to introduce a proposed amendment to the constitution that would do the opposite of what Hendren is proposing. According to this lawmaker, the proposal would replace the fiscal session by requiring the legislature to meet in a full, 60-day regulation session every single year instead of every other year. That would amount to 30 additional days of scheduled meeting time as compared to the current system (presumably with the opportunity to extend). More crucially, it would double the amount of time devoted to legislation beyond budget matters — convening for the purposes of writing new laws would become an annual event. Some might fear that would mean double the trouble; certainly, it would be an absolute bonanza for lobbyists. It would represent a dramatic step away from the concept of a part-time legislature.

Under new rules this year, the Senate and the House can each recommend a proposed constitutional amendment (via each chamber's State Agencies committee), which then must be approved by both chambers. The General Assembly can also choose to refer a third with a two-thirds vote of both chambers, though it's not clear that there is an appetite among legislative leadership to go for three.

Most Capitol observers believe that Senate Joint Resolution 8, the measure to limit the punitive and non-economic damages that can be awarded to claimants in civil actions (so-called tort reform), will be the referred proposal for a constitutional amendment from the Senate side this year. The measure would also give the legislature full powers over the rules of pleading, practice, and procedure normally reserved for the judicial branch of government. It appears to have the votes to move forward, though there is some opposition from both parties; a scattering of other competing measures, in addition to Hendren's, have been filed and sent to the Senate State Agencies committee.

It's not clear what the House will pursue for its recommendation. Hendren's hope is that perhaps the House might push through the "tort reform" proposal instead so that the Senate could do his SJR1 proposal to nix the fiscal session. But our tipster believes that a segment in the House is aiming to push a proposal for annual full sessions, and could even threaten to hold up the senate's tort reform measure if the senate side doesn't go along. We'll see.

The question of how often the legislature should meet is not a strictly partisan issue — Hendren's proposal is co-sponsored by Sen. Keith Ingram, the Democratic Senate Minority Leader. Frankly, legislators may partly split on this issue based on whether or not they have a real full-time job — or any job — outside of legislating (or outside of "consulting" or other rackets that are essentially paid extensions of their legislative roles).

Because the particulars of General Assembly meetings are written into the constitution, any change would have to come via a constitutional amendment, and any such proposal coming out of the legislature would then have to be approved by voters.


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