In case you missed it last week, some political theater played out with some interesting back and forth between Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe and Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Darr. The end result was some ruffled feathers but likely a positive outcome for the lieutenant governor’s future political prospects.
On the immediate surface, the whole deal was over Senate Bill 131. This is a bill, now a law, that removes the state list of concealed carry permit holders from being considered a public document and therefore subject to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
The discussion over this bill formed an odd debate between those concerned with protecting the Second Amendment rights of Arkansans to keep and bear arms without a violation of their privacy against those concerned with protecting the First Amendment right of free speech and a free press that extends to the right to freely obtain information held by the state.
Without wading too far into the debate, the Legislature sided with those on the Second Amendment side of the debate and approved the bill by wide margins in both chambers. But when the bill hit Beebe’s desk for his signature, he punted.
Beebe said he saw no need for the law and opposed the bill, pointing to a legislative compromise reached in 2009 that he said “bolstered the privacy of permit holders while still preserving the public’s right to access information.”
But since the bill passed with overwhelming majorities and had no constitutional problems, he decided to let the bill go into law without his signature, which happens five days after it arrives on his desk.
But before five days passed, Beebe left the state for a conference in Washington. According to the state constitution, when the governor leaves the state the lieutenant governor becomes the acting governor.
Most of the time this transfer happens without anyone noticing. In fact when the Legislature is not in session, Darr usually goes about his normal business. I once spoke with acting governor Darr while he was busing tables at a pizza restaurant he owned. I am not sure if his customers knew the governor was refilling their soft drinks.
But this time with the legislative session in full swing, acting governor Darr decided to go ahead and sign SB131 on the Friday before it became law the following Monday.
“The bill contained an emergency clause stating that it would take effect as soon as it was signed. I felt very strongly that the privacy of Arkansans’ personal information deserved its immediate attention. The release of such records is an invasion of privacy and threatens the safety and property of the persons identified,” explained Darr.
As you might have guessed, Beebe was not pleased and made that known in front a group of reporters at the Capitol when he returned from his trip.
“He didn’t embarrass me. He embarrassed himself. So that’s his problem,” Beebe said. “We will be much more careful in regard to Darr.”
Beebe went on to say that it was “totally inappropriate” for Darr to sign that bill and compared Darr’s action to that of former Senate Pro Tempore Jerry Jewell. Twenty years ago Jewell was acting governor while newly minted Gov. Jim Guy Tucker was in Washington for the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. Acting governor Jewell granted several pardons and clemencies in Tucker’s absence.
It certainly seems like a stretch to compare turning criminals loose from prison to signing a law that would take effect in two days but the governor’s office stuck by it.
“I apologize to the governor if he took offense to anything. But as far as name calling, I think that’s the type of Washington D.C.-style politics that is just not looked at friendly here in Arkansas. I think we can do better than that,” Darr responded.
The simple fact is that Beebe could have prevented the whole episode by vetoing the bill before he left the state. He chose not to, wanting instead to walk a tight rope hoping not to upset either the gun rights or the free speech crowd.
However, when Darr rocked the apple cart, the “shootout” at the Capitol exposed the delicate balance unfolding at the Capitol. The event was not about the bill but a result of a rising tide of a two-party government in Arkansas.
As for Darr, whether he runs for re-election or throws his hat in the ring for Senate or Congress, the media exposure as defender of the Second Amendment will play well with his base.
• • •
Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His email is jason@TolbertReport.com.