The elections have mercifully ended, so now is when the actual governing begins. On Monday, 135 legislators will descend on the State Capitol and become very busy very quickly.
How busy? In the space of three months in 2015, lawmakers considered 2,063 bills and passed 1,289 of them into law.
Considering that the makeup of the Legislature isn’t that different than it was in 2015, expect similar numbers this year. Many of those laws will be technical and/or targeted and won’t affect you or me much. But some will be important and far-reaching.
What else can be expected?
— Expect medical marijuana to take up a lot of time and energy. When 53 percent of the voters passed the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment in November, it was only the first step in making the drug legal. Now legislators must flesh out the amendment with additional laws, each of which requires a two-thirds majority because they would amend a constitutional amendment. Rep. Doug House, R-North Little Rock, said legislators are considering “about 135 issues, and that’s a real number” that must be clarified or modified through legislation.
— Expect that legislators will cut taxes, but with less enthusiasm than they did in 2015. Two years ago, Gov. Asa Hutchinson easily passed a $100 million middle class income tax cut after making it the signature issue of his 2014 campaign. This year, he’s promising a smaller tax cut – $50.5 million targeted toward lower-income Arkansans, plus a tax exemption for military retiree benefits. That second tax cut would cost the state treasury $13 million, but it would be offset by the ending of various exemptions, including for manufactured homes. Other legislators might propose their own tax cuts, but expect Hutchinson to mostly get what he wants.
Regardless, he’s being cautious about cutting taxes too much, and so are many legislators. Revenues have not been meeting forecasts this year. Meanwhile, the state must for the first time pay 5 percent of the cost of the Arkansas Works program that provides health insurance for more than 300,000 Arkansans. Policymakers have been looking for savings to offset that new expense. Lawmakers also must produce a budget surplus so the state has money available to match $200 million in federal highway funds. They can’t cut spending for education without risking a lawsuit, and they must increase funding for the foster care system, which is in a crisis. And unlike Washington, D.C., Arkansas has a mechanism, the Revenue Stabilization Act, that discourages deficit spending.
— Expect the Democrats to act like a minority party and Republicans to behave like a party with an overwhelming majority. After the election and three post-election party-switchers, Republicans control 102 of the 135 seats in the Legislature – the same number controlled by Democrats in 2008. Democrats know they’ll be the minority for a long time, so with nothing much left to lose, they’ll more aggressively contrast themselves with the Republicans. Republicans, meanwhile, don’t even need Democrats in the House of Representatives, where they control 76 of the 100 seats, enough to pass anything with a three-fourths majority. The numbers are so lopsided that many of the meaningful conflicts will be not between Republicans and Democrats, but between Republicans and other Republicans.
— Expect some heat. It’s a safe bet that legislators will debate controversial social issues that grab a lot of attention and attract sign-carriers to the Capitol steps in a way that tax cuts never do. Bills already have been filed to restrict abortion, and Hutchinson says one of his 19 priorities is ending Arkansas’ practice of honoring civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King and Civil War General Robert E. Lee on the same day. Only two other states do that. Hutchinson would move Lee’s day from January to the fall. An effort to separate the commemorations failed in 2015.
— Finally, expect the unexpected. As Hutchinson said in a December press conference, “With my vast experience in legislative sessions — one — I can feel confident that there will be some surprises. There will be some unanticipated legislation. There will be some unanticipated controversies, and you just deal with those a step at a time.”
That’s a pretty safe expectation when 135 legislators and a governor gather in Little Rock to debate 2,000 bills and pass 1,300 laws in three months.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.