AR Budget Crisis Session

Arkansas Budget Crisis Session
By David Ferguson

Governor Asa Hutchinson intends to call a special session of the Arkansas General Assembly to deal with Arkansas’ budget crisis caused by the Coronavirus and resulting economic shutdown. He also announced big reductions in state spending and a delay in the deadline to file individual income tax returns until July 15.

If having a session of the legislature can wait until April 8, I hope the Governor and legislators will agree to avoid the need to have to stay in session longer, by handling all the issues in the Fiscal Session, which is scheduled to begin on that date.

Why do I care? I am concerned about the legislators and legislative staff having to be in session longer than is necessary.  I worked for the legislature for about thirty-two years, retiring in 2012.  I know many of the legislators who are in office and know many of the legislative employees.  And, yes, even lobbyists and reporters. I worry about them being crowded together for longer than necessary and creating an increased risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

You may be one of those people who says, “Who cares about politicians.”  But think about this, they will be returning to a town near you. Do you really want them to have to stay together longer than is necessary to do the state’s business?

Many legislators have been misled into thinking the Fiscal Session was only intended to deal with the budget and nothing else.  When the resolution proposing a Fiscal Session was considered by the legislature in 2007, it was intentionally left open to allow the consideration of any matter on any subject. The legislature did not want to be totally dependent on a governor to call a special session on non-appropriation matters in even numbered years. While the legislators wanted the option to consider bills on any subject, they did not want the Fiscal Session to be crowded with a large number of non-appropriation bills. To address those concerns, the resolution included a provision only allowing a non-appropriation bill to be filed if each house passed a resolution agreeing to allow that particular bill to be introduced.

Arkansas Constitution Article 5 § 5 (c)(2) says: “A bill other than an appropriation bill may be considered in a fiscal session if two-thirds (⅔) of the members of each house of the General Assembly approve consideration of the bill.

If ever there were a time to use this option, this may be it, because it could shorten the number of days the legislature must meet during a time when people are trying to protect themselves from the virus.

It takes a minimum of three days for legislation to pass in a Special Session. That is also the shortest for legislation to pass in any session.  A Fiscal Session can only be thirty days in length, unless the legislature extends the Fiscal Session for no more than fifteen days by a three-fourths vote.[i]

I don’t think the Governor would have any problem getting the legislature to allow the Governor’s legislative package to be included in the Fiscal Session. If the legislature failed to do so, it would just mean having to stay in Little Rock longer for a Special Session.

I should also mention the legislature tries to get around the need to adopt a resolution through the risky practice of allowing appropriation bills to be amended to add substantive provisions.  For example, taking an appropriation bill for the Department of Finance and Administration’s operations and adding an amendment to make a change in a tax law.  Eventually, this practice will cross the line and result in the whole legislation being stricken down as unconstitutional for altering the original purpose of the bill[ii] or causing the bill to no longer be a single subject.[iii]

Whether the Governor and legislature decide to combine the issues into a Fiscal Session or to have both a Fiscal Session and a Special Session, I am sure legislators and staff are working on every precaution to be safe while getting the job done.

[i] Arkansas Constitution Article 5 § 17

[ii] Arkansas Constitution Article 5 § 21. Laws by bills — Amendment. No law shall be passed except by bill, and no bill shall be so altered or amended on its passage through either house, as to change its original purpose.

[iii] Arkansas Constitution Article 5 § 30. General and special appropriations.

Except as provided in Arkansas Constitution, Article 19, § 31, the general appropriation bill shall embrace nothing but appropriations for the ordinary expenses of the executive, legislative and judicial departments of the State; all other appropriations shall be made by separate bills, each embracing but one subject. [As amended by Const. Amend. 94.]

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