Session kicks off today at Capitol
Efficiency is key, state senator says
Gov. Asa Hutchinson predicted last week that the looming regular session of the 92nd General Assembly — set to kick off today — would be “one of the most historic and transformative” of his lifetime, as he plans to implement several key pieces from his successful re-election campaign.
Legislative leaders said the broad agenda for the session means that they will have to keep themselves and members focused to avoid the session dragging deep into the spring.
“No longer than necessary,” Senate President Pro Tempore-Elect Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, said
Friday when asked to predict how long the session would last.
“Our responsibility is to try and manage the session in a way that we have full days and we do efficient work,” Hendren continued. “Also that we don’t leave work not finished because of some desire to artificially adjourn on a certain day.”
The longest regular session in recent years was that of the 89th General Assembly in 2013, which began Jan. 14 and did not officially adjourn until May 17. By comparison, the 2017 session, which began Jan. 9, ended sine die on May 1.
Under the Arkansas Constitution, regular sessions are confined to no more than 60 days (days off, including weekends, are counted) unless extended to up to 75 days by a two-thirds vote of each chamber. Members may also agree to meet past 75 days by a three-fourths vote.
Regular sessions begin the second Monday in January in odd-numbered years, after November general elections. Besides resulting in new and amended state laws, regular sessions also include the passage of funding bills and adoption of proposed constitutional amendments to refer to voters. In even-numbered years, lawmakers meet in fiscal sessions to approve funding bills. The first fiscal session was in 2010.
The lengthy session in 2013 came after a Republican takeover of both chambers of the Legislature as a result of the previous elections, while a Democrat, Mike Beebe, still served as governor. Lawmakers that year also approved an expansion of Medicaid under the so-called private option, which later became known as Arkansas Works under Hutchinson.
Funding for Arkansas Works must be re-approved with every budget, and has been the subject of several contentious votes in recent years.
This year, however, Hutchinson and legislative leaders predict that with the addition of a new work requirement in 2017, the program would be less contentious.
The work requirement has led to nearly 17,000 Arkansans being removed from the program, which still provides health care to around 234,000 low-income people.
“I’m optimistic that it’s something we’ll be able to address and move forward,” said
House Speaker Matthew Shepherd,
The co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, said he also felt confident about the appropriation’s eventual passage, while cautioning that debate over the program
— created under then-President Barack Obama’s signature health care law — was not fully in the past.
“I think we’ll adopt it,” Teague said. “It could get dicey.”
More than 200 pieces of legislation were pre-filed ahead of the session, though thousands more bills will be introduced in the weeks ahead, based on data from previous sessions.
Pre-filed bills concerning Confederate monuments, access to abortion and the use of self-defense — the latter similar to “stand-yourground” laws passed in other states — have already drawn attention on social media, and are likely to rouse debates during the session.
In addition, several Democrats have promised to file “red flag” legislation aimed at setting up a process for judges to order the temporary seizure of firearms from people deemed to be a risk to themselves or others. Some Republicans, meanwhile, have vowed to oppose such measures, though Hutchinson said he would be “open” to a red-flag law.
Republicans and anti-abortion Democrats could also take up a number of measures aimed at making access to abortion more restrictive than anywhere in the country. Jerry Cox, the president of the faith-based Family Council, said his goal for the session is for the Legislature to pass laws that would have Arkansas deemed the most “pro-life” state in the county, based on rankings compiled by Americans United for Life. The group now ranks Arkansas second, behind Arizona.
State Sen.-elect Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, said last week that he’s “ready to end abortion altogether” through legislation that would prompt a challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court’s
1973 Roe v.
Wade decision, which has protected abortion access for decades.
Ballinger said his decision on whether to pursue such a step “will play into what [Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader] Ginsberg does,” referring to the 85-year-old member of the liberal wing of the Supreme Court. Ginsberg recently has suffered health issues.
Other legislation on social issues has already proved overly controversial.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported last week on legislation filed by state Rep. Johnny Rye, R- Trumann, related to Internet regulation, including a bill that would have required state government to enforce a ban on Internet pornography. After the newspaper reported that the legislation was tied to an out-of state man with a history of arrests and aliases, Rye said he would pull down the bills.
Speaking to reporters at the Arkansas Press Association on Friday morning, both Hendren and Shepherd were asked about the story, and said it served as an example to lawmakers who are inundated with legislative proposals ahead of the session.
“That story was a wake-up call for 135 of us that we have to be careful about requests for legislation,” Hendren said.
Asked if there were any measures or issues which they wished to leave out of the session, both legislative leaders said they did not see it as their place to attempt to block potentially disruptive legislation from being filed.
“There’s a balance between trying to manage and also making sure every voice is heard,” Hendren said.