The Arkansas Legislature is back in session, and that’s always reason for apprehension. This year’s session will be unique in that Republican lawmakers hold majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives for the first time.
That should indicate we won’t have much meddling with the laws of the state, but many members of the party of limited government seem to be intent on expanding the role of government in our lives. They just don’t want to pay for it.
Medicaid is the issue that may dominate the session because the state is facing a shortfall of about $300 million in financing the program, which provides health care to the poor, the disabled and the elderly. The obvious solution — accepting more federal dollars in a Medicaid expansion — has some longterm risk and is viewed skeptically by Republicans, who don’t really like the program anyway.
Gov. Mike Beebe proposes to continue reducing the sales tax on groceries, possibly getting rid of everything but the one-eighth percent tax for "environmental enhancement funds" that we passed as part of Amendment 75. GOP lawmakers are also talking about revisions to the income tax rates.
Beyond that, many members of the new majorities are reviving legislation they couldn’t pass when the Democrats held the majorities so we’re likely to see all kinds of weird proposals. Worse, some of them might become law.
In each regular session the General Assembly can also propose three constitutional amendments, plus one other to deal with the salaries of the state’s constitutional officers and legislators.
We the people get a chance to vote on whatever the lawmakers propose, but we don’t always have much choice. From the last session we got two bond proposals and a silly amendment guaranteeing the "right to hunt, fish, trap and harvest wildlife." Those of us who engage in other sports were left out. All three passed.
We can expect to see plenty of other silly ideas put forward. Our constitution is already much longer than the U.S. Constitution and is growing.
Nevertheless, some legislators from both parties seriously want to do good work for the state, and they should consider dealing with several constitutional issues.
• Reducing the number of state constitutional officers. We are required to have a governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer, auditor and attorney general. We don’t need to elect a treasurer or auditor. Both of these positions have been used by career politicians to stay in office despite term limits, and people who run for the offices don’t need to meet any minimum qualifications. But financing state government has become much too complex to trust to people who lack financial expertise, as shown by the current treasurer’s problems with investments.
We should also pair the lieutenant governor and governor so that they are both elected from the same party. It isn’t conducive to good government to have the No. 1 and No. 2 executive positions from different parties. While we’re at it, make the lieutenant governor full-time and give that officer greater responsibilities, such as taking care of the Capitol building and grounds, now handled by the secretary of state.
• Change the term limits law for legislators. The current law has gutted the House of people with legislative experience and expertise, leaving it at the mercy of career bureaucrats. The limit is now three 2-year terms in the House and two 4-year terms in the Senate. By the time a representative learns "the ropes," he or she is running for the last time.
As a result, many lawmakers serve two or three terms in the House, then jump to the Senate — or vice versa. Either way, the Legislature loses expertise. Nobody in the "real world" discounts the value of experience in such a way.
State Rep. Butch Wilkins, D-Jonesboro, has an idea worth considering. Set a simple limit of 14 years in the Legislature. One person, for example, could serve all 14 in the House. That would maintain the total limit of legislative service we already have and yet also preserve seniority and knowledge of the processes.
While we’re at it, propose a reasonable salary for all legislators and get rid of the shadowy process of expenses and reimbursements that can run more than $50,000 a year without accountability per legislator.
• Set term limits for elected county officials and give them 4-year terms. Most of them want the 4-year terms without term limits, but the trade-off may be necessary to get this passed. This might have to be a separate proposal.
• Fix the initiative and referendum process. Set up by Article 5 of the constitution and refined by Amendment 7, the law is fairly straightforward. But we’ve muddled it with implementing legislation such as a 1999 law that provides for early review of ballot measures. Last summer we had a fiasco with various petition drives, many depending heavily on groups that pay canvassers. We need to regulate such groups so that they don’t make a mockery of the law, while allowing for voluntary citizens’ groups to operate.
Whatever they do, legislators should remember that our constitution is already 160 pages long. We need to clarify and improve it, not necessarily to expand it.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.