State legislators are beginning to consider proposals for constitutional amendments that could eventually go to a vote of the people. Wednesday was the deadline for members of the Arkansas House of Representatives and Senate to file such proposals. In the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Thursday, lawmakers discussed two of the nearly thirty proposals filed in both chambers.
Senate Republican Majority Leader Jim Hendren of Gravette and Democratic Minority Leader Keith Ingram of West Memphis co-presented their proposed amendment, SJR1, which would eliminate the legislature’s biennial fiscal session.
In 2008, Arkansas voters passed a state constitutional amendment requiring the Legislature to hold fiscal sessions in even-numbered years in order to pass state budgets. The fiscal sessions would be held in addition to regular sessions, which occur in odd-numbered years. The first fiscal session took place in 2010.
Hendren told the committee that convening at the Capitol every year is turning legislators in to full-time elected representatives. He said they should as much as possible maintain roles as part-time “citizen” legislators.
“I think it is important for business owners and for farmers and for people who are out there in the economy doing real jobs to be involved in the legislative process,” Hendren said. “We are rapidly moving to a place where that’s going to be impossible. And then what we end up with is professional legislators who think they know everything. And the fact is what we need is citizens who are actually living it.”
Hendren also argued that the appropriations process of the fiscal session is now often used as a forum to modify or even stop certain state policies. He made reference to actions taken in recent years by the Joint Budget Subcommittee on Special Language to insert policy-related provisions into budget bills for state agencies and programs. Hendren is a member of that subcommittee.
Ingram said after the hearing that ending the month-long fiscal session could save the state somewhere between $400,000 and $500,000.
“This state operated for many, many years on a biennium and did very, very well,” Ingram said. “I think it comes down to, quite honestly, if you believe in less government, then you would want your legislators to spend more time at home and less time at the Capitol in Little Rock. And I think that’s what Sen. Hendren and I believe in.”
In committee, Republican Sen. Gary Stubblefield of Branch questioned whether ending a fiscal session would truly achieve the desired efficiencies.
“The country’s not the same as it was 100 years ago,” said Stubblefield. “The state is not is not nearly as complicated as it was 100 years ago. I mean we have things come up now that 100 years ago they would never have dreamed.”
Hendren replied that through technology, legislators could potentially keep up with the evolving demands of the job.
Republican Sen. Missy Irvin of Mountain View questioned whether eliminating a fiscal session while preserving the authority of the Governor to call special sessions, the Legislature could be forfeiting a means of placing a check on the executive branch. In Arkansas, the Governor sets the formal legislative agenda in the call for special sessions. In fiscal sessions, legislators typically craft the agenda.
In response, Hendren reiterated his point that fiscal sessions were not originally intended as opportunities to advance specific policies.
If approved by legislators this year, Hendren’s and Ingram’s proposed constitutional amendment would go before voters in the 2018 general election. If voters approve it, the amendment would take effect in 2019.
The Legislature is allowed to refer up to three proposed amendments to Arkansas voters.
This post was edited at 9:55am on 2/10/17.