Let’s start with the assumption that it’s inherently better not to pass a law unless it’s necessary. Laws can be messy, many have costs, and many infringe on our freedoms.
So it was a good thing this past month when legislators met at the Capitol and didn’t accomplish more than they had to. In fact, the Legislature seems to be passing fewer laws than in the past. It seems to be a more deliberative body. And it seems there are two reasons for this: the creation of the fiscal session and the newfound relevance of the Republican Party.
Here’s a little background. Prior to 2010, legislators met every odd-numbered year in a regular session and then periodically gathered in special session when called to Little Rock by the governor.
In 2008, voters passed a constitutional amendment calling for fiscal sessions to be held every even-numbered year. Because of that, legislators now consider taxing and spending decisions annually. The fiscal sessions take about three weeks and focus strictly on budgetary matters. The traditional sessions take about three months and involve all state issues, including budgetary matters.
The amendment contained a provision allowing other issues to come up for debate if approved to do so by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, but legislators are reluctant to do that — first, because they believe that voters intended that to be reserved for very important issues; and second, because they have jobs and lives and don’t want to spend half their time in the Capitol. This year, nothing passed that threshold.
Then in 2010, voters made the Legislature what it had not been in the past: a two-party body. This year, Republicans made up 46 of the House’s 100 members and 15 of the 35 senators. Just a few years ago, they were so few of them that the majority party didn’t even bother trying to oppress them.
So back to the original premise of this column, which is that legislators are passing fewer laws than in the past.
By last count, the legislators of the current 88th General Assembly passed 287 acts this fiscal session and 1,242 in the regular session of 2011, for a total of 1,529. Compare that to the 86th General Assembly, the last without a fiscal session, which served in 2007-08. Legislators passed 1,755 acts in 2007 and then five more during a special session in 2008. That’s a total of 1,760 acts — 151 more than these past two years. Keep in mind that all of the 287 acts passed this February were appropriations bills that would have been folded into two-year bills in the past. So in reality, there have been about 450 fewer acts passed these past two years than in 2007 and 2008.
Moving back in time, the 85th General Assembly passed a total of 2,364 acts during a regular session in 2005 and a special session in 2006. That’s 835 more than the current Legislature has passed.
The 84th General Assembly passed a total of 1,990 acts in a regular session and two special sessions in 2003, and the 83rd General Assembly passed a total of 1,845 acts during a regular session in 2001 and a special session in 2002.
What do these numbers tell us? Maybe the presence of the fiscal session reassures legislators that they can take the time to study an issue because they know they’ll be meeting again in nine or 10 months. Maybe having more than one party in power adds a different perspective and forces legislators to work a little harder at building consensus. All of that is good, but there are some storm clouds. The state faces a looming Medicaid shortfall of up to $400 million, a deficit so big that it can’t be bridged without making a lot of people unhappy. That will give politicians ample chances to try to score cheap political points. Meanwhile, there’s a chance we’ll have divided government in 2013, with a Democratic governor and Republicans controlling the House or Senate or both. Sometimes that works fine, sometimes not. We’re probably going to see more partisanship, but it won’t look like Congress. I’m hopeful — not certain, but hopeful — we’ll stay somewhere close to this place where we are now, with a Legislature that does less, but accomplishes enough. Of course, maybe this is all a coincidence. Maybe the current crop of legislators is unusually deliberative. Maybe Gov. Mike Beebe ends up calling the Legislature into special session this summer, and legislators start passing laws by the hundreds. That would really ruin this column.
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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at Arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.