Analysis: 12-Week Abortion Ban May Stand After Ark. Senate Veto Override

Mar 5, 2013

Democratic Governor Mike Beebe is taking overrides of his vetos by the Republican-majority legislature in stride. He told press last week, lawmakers have to vote their mind.

The Arkansas Senate voted Tuesday to override the Governor's veto of a bill that would ban most abortions after 12 weeks.  It now heads to the Arkansas House.

If also passed by members of the House, it would be the second veto override of this legislative session.

Governor Mike Beebe had argued that Senate Bill 134, which bans most abortions when a heartbeat is detected, usually at about 12 weeks, violates the constitution and would cost the state money in a potential legal challenge. The measure’s sponsor, Republican Senator Jason Rapert of Conway doesn’t buy that.

“The argument that says that this bill is unconstitutional is actually an excuse, it’s not a reason. The fact of the matter is the Heartbeat Bill does use language from Roe v. Wade, has all the exceptions that are typically fought over and we believe we’re doing exactly what Roe v. Wade said, we’re regulating at approximately the end of the first trimester, the beginning of the second and I believe where there is a heartbeat there is life,” Rapert told reporters after the Senate vote.

It was just last week that the legislature overrode another abortion related bill that will ban most procedures 20 weeks into a pregnancy, or when some doctors have said a fetus can feel pain. That was the first veto of Beebe’s to be overridden.

While not a completely uncommon feature of Arkansas lawmaking, the override is seldom invoked. This legislative session, it’s a characteristic of opposing parties having control of the state’s executive and legislative branches for the first time in a long time and the Arkansas legislature’s uncommonly strong power to override vetoes according to Jay Barth, Professor of Politics at Hendrix College in Conway.

The Arkansas Constitution gives state lawmakers the power to override a veto with a simple majority of both the House and Senate. Barth says Arkansas is one of just a few states that give legislatures that power.

He says, in Arkansas, the rule is a provision of the post-reconstruction era.

“Those who kind of reclaimed the state government after Reconstruction, those Democrats were very cynical about government in general and in particular were really cynical about the power of the Governor.”

Barth wrote the book “Arkansas Politics and Government” with the late political scientist Diane Blair. In it he tabulated veto overrides of Arkansas’s past.

Former Governor Mike Huckabee, a Republican, weathered many such political maneuvers from the majority Democratic legislature of the time.

“The most significant one was battle over General Improvement Funds with Governor Huckabee and the Democratic legislature in 1997 … that was a big battle. Historically the Governor had had total power over the disbursal of those General Improvement Dollars, the legislature really wanted to have a voice in that,” Barth said.

The state’s constitution was intended to limit the Governor’s authority in other ways, according to Barth. One is that the executive branch is broken up into seven different offices.

Fast forward to 2013 with a majority Republican legislature for the first time since the state’s Constitution was written and you have a group of legislators who have been waiting to get a word in.

After last week’s override of his veto, Governor Beebe who spent decades as a legislator himself, took it in stride, saying that it’s just the way the process works.

“Oh, it happens all the time, we used to do it to Huckabee all the – a lot. I mean, you know, I don’t veto a lot of bills. So, it’s not anything novel or new, we did it with Clinton, we did it with Tucker,” Beebe said.

These days Rex Nelson is the President of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges and Universities, but back when Beebe was doing some veto overriding of his own, Nelson was an aide to Huckabee.

“I think it was eight vetoes they overrode, all in the same day. It was unprecedented, there had never been that many overrides in a single day in Arkansas history, but of course you had a Republican Governor – only the third Republican Governor since Reconstruction – and you had a heavily Democratic legislature at that time,” Nelson said.

That difference in party between the Governor and the legislature is what Barth agrees will drive many veto overrides.

“We just haven’t had it this way where we have a Democratic Governor and a Republican legislature,” Barth said.

The House is expected to take its own vote on the veto override of the 12-week abortion ban soon.