Four years ago, Arkansans approved a ballot issue authorizing the Arkansas Legislature to meet every year instead of every other year.
The idea was that lawmakers would use sessions during odd-number years to pass legislation and outline fiscal policy, and meet during the even-number years (like this year) to focus exclusively on the state’s budget and make fiscal appropriations. The past two years, that has worked just fine. This year, however, things are a little different.
If enough lawmakers agree, the legislature can decide to vote on non-fiscal legislation—that is, regular laws like the kind they typically vote on during odd-number years. That didn’t happen in 2010, but this year, we’ve seen about a dozen non-appropriation bills filed, and there could be more to come. Some of them have to do with things like regulating parole for convicted sex offenders or amending Arkansas’ Revenue Stabilization Act.
I’m not saying these bills are good or bad. I’m sure some, if not all (I haven’t had an opportunity to read every one of them yet) are fine bills. But what bothers me is that the spirit of Arkansas’ Constitution seems to be taking a backseat this year.
Arkansas’ Constitution was written so that lawmakers are, essentially, part-time public officials. That’s why they originally met for three months every other year: Arkansas has never wanted lawmakers who sit around the Capitol all day every day coming up with new laws to impose on Arkansans. Now, I’m not saying that’s what lawmakers are doing this year, but it does seem like another step in that direction (incidentally, I voted against annual legislative sessions in the election four years ago for the very same reason).
I’d love to see new pro-life legislation pass. I’d love to have my taxes go down. I’d love to see laws on the books strengthening Arkansas’ marriages, families, education opportunities, and so on. But I’m willing to wait until 2013 before I lobby for any of that, because the spirit behind Arkansas’ Constitution is simple: Pass new laws in odd-number years, and stick to just working on the budget in even-number years.
If the need for a law rises to a level urgent enough, we have a process in place for enacting those laws any time of year. It’s called a special session of the Arkansas Legislature, and the governor can convene one if he wants to. It’s a provision in our Constitution that gives lawmakers the flexibility they need to address real emergencies without being at the Capitol any more than necessary.
I’m afraid, with an election looming in November, a lot of our lawmakers at the Capitol are going to feel compelled to ramrod a couple of final bills through the legislature between now and March so that they can have one more feather in their cap when they campaign back home. To me, that just isn’t a good enough reason to push for new laws right now.
When Arkansans authorized the legislators to meet every year, they did so with the understanding that the legislature would use its meetings during even-number years to work on the budget—not pass a bunch of new laws. I think lawmakers would do well to respect the wishes of the voters, and not weigh any new legislation until 2013.