Arkansas has always had a weak executive branch of government.
A simple legislative majority can override a gubernatorial veto. The ability to raise money, when needed, is complicated by the extraordinary majority needed to raise most taxes. Spending is constrained by the 75 percent vote requirement on many spending bills.
Some governors — through party dominance, tenure and skill — have commanded more power than others. But the legislature always had the hammer.
Now things are even worse and not only because of unified single-party domination.
A coterie of powerful legislators referred to voters in 2014 a constitutional amendment that further destroyed balance-of-power protections in the Arkansas Constitution. Where the legislature once could "review" all administrative agency rules, it could not outright block them. The constitutional amendment — which enjoyed broad voter support — gives the legislature the veto over rules.
To date, the legislature has resisted the fullest application of the law. It hasn't asserted dominion over colleges, highways and Game and Fish. Yet.
The damage is bad enough. The state Board of Education last week voted, with less than a majority of its nine members, to junk a student proficiency test after only one year and replace it with a lightly used test favored by Gov. Asa Hutchinson. The issue is balled up in the rising resistance, particularly on the far-right wing, to the Common Core curriculum, which aims at similar education goals nationwide. Hutchinson isn't ready to junk Common Core, but junking a test closely identified with the curriculum was an interim snack he cooked up for the angry wingers.
Merits of the test argument aside, the outcome illustrated the brawnier legislative branch. Common Core opponents could not pass legislation in 2015 to junk the Common Core-related test. But they have the power on the legislature's review committee to defeat a rule for its continued use. That's why the state Board of Education, against its wishes, folded.
Expect more of the same. A test change depicted as a victory for Hutchinson was really a victory for legislative dominance. That's why we see Sen. Jason Rapert angrily demanding more help from Gov. Hutchinson on the issue of discriminating against gay people. Rapert and his crowd have the muscle to achieve their will by other means, such as by interference with Hutchinson's executive agencies.
I fear we may see this come soon in the matter of the state Health Department's current refusal to list both parents of a married same-sex couple on a newborn's birth certificate. The Health Department has said it is moving to amend its rules — as other states have done — to accept declarations of parenthood for same-sex parents just as it does for heterosexual couples. It's vital to protect the interests of children in health care, schooling, parental benefits, property and custody issues. The Health Department insists it has good intentions. But a rule must be adopted by the state Board of Health. And then that rule must be approved by a legislative committee. The identical issue has inflamed Religious Right bigots in other states. They tend to oppose anything but husband-wife sex to procreate and oppose same-sex parents.
In a balanced three-part government, the state judiciary might save us from a legislature that dominates the executive. But our Supreme Court couldn't decide an "expedited" case on same-sex marriage in eight months and, according to reliable reports, at the end was prepared to declare that the U.S. and Arkansas Constitution do not provide equal rights to gay people. They are captive of the legislative will, too.
As in the 1960s, at least we still have the federal courts.