The newspaper headline said – “State agency no-shows leave lawmakers vexed.”[i] Governor Asa Hutchinson refused to have two of his agency heads testify before a particular legislative committee. The committee responded by authorizing a subpoena for the agency heads.
It was a fight between Republicans. It is a fight between the Governor and his allies and legislators who are upset with the Governor’s actions.
We decided to revisit this story as an example of how Arkansas governors now dominate the legislative branch.
Several decades ago, it would have been unthinkable for a state agency head to ignore a request to appear before a state legislative committee. We have heard stories about how some legislators used the budget process to eliminate funding for a state position or cut funding to a program as a way to impress upon agency heads the need to be more respectful. But those days are long gone and the balance of power between the two branches of government now heavily favors the governor.
Over the years the legislature has weakened its own budget powers by giving governors more discretion over the budget. Governors have millions in funds they can tap to plug holes in the budget or to fund projects of supporters, more flexibility to create new state positions, and greater authority to shift money within a state agency from one budget item to another.
The weakening of budget powers, along with a governor who is willing to openly seek to defeat of conservative legislators at the ballot box, means the legislature has both hands tied behind its back.
NO-SHOWS AND VICTORY FOR GOVERNOR
The Governor scored a total victory over the committee. Let’s take a look.
The Arkansas House and Senate Committees on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs meeting jointly requested two state agency heads to come to a committee meeting on May 21 to answer questions about the Hutchinson administration’s actions during the pandemic.
The State Agencies Committees wanted to question the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division Director Doralee Chandler about the agency’s temporary suspension of the liquor license held by Fort Smith’s music venue, TempleLive, as a way to prevent TempleLive from holding a concert on Friday, May 15 – which was three days before Governor Asa Hutchinson’s order would have allowed such an event. The Governor enforced his order by temporarily pulling the liquor license of the venue. His action to enforce his order is the same one used by the Democratic governor of Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, when she temporarily stripped a barber of his license in an attempt to keep him from opening his barbershop before Whitmer gives the okay.
The State agencies committees also wanted to question Department of Commerce Secretary Mike Preston about problems with Arkansas’ Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.
The questioning of the two officials wasn’t just one item on the committee agenda. It was the primary reason for the meeting.
At the direction of Governor Asa Hutchinson, Preston and Chandler refused to attend the meeting.
The State Agencies committees responded to the no-shows by authorizing subpoenas to compel the attendance of the two agency heads at a future meeting, but the motion changed nothing. The Governor Hutchinson got exactly what he asked for – a delay and the removal of the issue from the State Agencies committees to a more friendly environment, the Legislative Council.
Prior to the scheduled committee meeting the Governor pressured legislators to get the State Agencies committees to take those issues off its agenda. When that did not work, the Governor simply directed his agency heads not to attend.
Senator Bob Ballinger’s motion allowed a subpoena if the agencies did not appear at the meeting of the Legislative Council. Since Hutchinson wanted the discussion moved to Legislative Council anyway, Ballinger’s motion gave the Governor what he asked for. By the way, the subpoena requires the approval of the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House. With the President Pro Tempore of the Senate being the Governor’s nephew, Senator Jim Hendren, how likely do you think a subpoena would ever be issued?
In the Legislative Council, the Governor has more strong allies to defend his agency heads than in the smaller State Agencies committees. With strong defenders and a much larger committee membership, it should be easier to bury criticisms with praises.
A legislators’ options to fight back are few and not easy to achieve. Legislators could change the rules to automatically subpoena all state agency witnesses, but that would require a lot more time and effort by legislators when such subpoenas are rarely necessary. Legislators could pass restrictions on budgets and on expenditure of discretionary funds but that too would be difficult to undo, especially when the pandemic led the legislature to give Governor Hutchinson even more discretion over the budget.
WEAKER GOVERNOR IN 2021?
One final thought about the conflict between Republicans. You may be thinking the Governor will be weaker next January as he enters his final two years. But that ignores the fact that because of the federal census he will be one of three officials to redraw legislative districts for the 2022 election. There are already some conservative Republicans who are likely to see their districts dramatically shifted away from their areas of voter strength because they have not fallen in line with the Governor. Few legislators are willing to risk being added to that list.
There is an effort to take redistricting out of the hands of the Governor, Secretary of State and Attorney General. The group Arkansas Voters First is trying to put a new method on the November ballot but with the pandemic it has become much harder or maybe impossible for initiatives to get enough voter signatures to get on the ballot.
TELL US WHAT YOU THINK
Your perspective on this story will depend on whether you favor governors (both Republican and Democrat governors) to much greater power than the legislature or whether you prefer more of a balance of power between the executive and legislative branches.
Sound off on our Facebook page and let us know whether you like or dislike Governor Hutchinson’s victory over the committee.
[i] State agency no-shows leave lawmakers vexed, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, 5/16/2020