Issue 1 would allow Arkansas lawmakers to call themselves into special session

Opponents of the proposed constitutional amendment say it would upset the balance of power

Sen. Breanne Davis in a pink blazer sitting at a desk in the Arkansas Capitol

Sen. Breanne Davis is the lead sponsor of Issue 1. If approved, the constitutional amendment would allow the Legislature to call itself into special session. (Arkansas House).

Arkansas voters are being asked to consider a constitutional amendment that would allow the General Assembly to call itself into a special session and set the agenda.

Under current law, only the governor has that authority.

If voters approve Issue 1, the House Speaker and Senate President could issue a joint proclamation to convene a special session. A written proclamation supported by at least two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate could also be used.

The Arkansas Constitution allows lawmakers to include up to three constitutional amendments on the general election ballot. Sen. Breanne Davis (R-Russellville) is the lead sponsor of the proposal, which was approved during the 2021 Regular Session. Davis worked on the legislation with Rep. Frances Cavenaugh (R-Walnut Ridge), the lead sponsor in the House.

We don’t need more government.

– Randy Zook, CEO, Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce

The idea for the proposed amendment resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic, Davis said. Issue 1 is not a criticism of the governor, who did a good job of keeping businesses open, she said. But there were a lot of moving parts with federal mandates and money coming down from Washington, and she heard from more constituents than ever asking for help.

Issue 1 would allow legislators to act more quickly if a majority of them are hearing of an important need from many Arkansans, Davis said.

“If enough people across the state are saying, ‘Hey, there is an issue that needs to be addressed,’ or something crucial comes up, we can respond more directly to the people that we serve and that we represent,” she said.

One of 14 states

Arkansas legislators meet for a few months every year. In odd-numbered years, they consider changes to current laws, new laws and determine the state’s budget during regular sessions. The next regular session begins in January.

Lawmakers focus on state finances and budgets during fiscal sessions, which occur in even-numbered years.

The governor calls special sessions when the General Assembly needs to convene to discuss other matters. The Legislature had one extraordinary session in 2020, two in 2021 and one in 2022. 

During the most recent special session in August, legislators voted to lower income taxes and to set aside $50 million of the state’s $1.6 billion surplus for a school-safety grant program.

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Arkansas is one of 14 states where only the governor may call a special session, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A special session may be called by a governor or the Legislature in 36 states. 

Davis said she has not found examples of lawmakers in other states abusing this power. Approving Issue 1 would give the Arkansas Legislature the option to call a special session. The governor would still maintain the ability to do so as well. 

Issue 1 opponents

Arkansans Against Issue 1, a group formed in opposition to the proposed amendment, formally filed with the Arkansas Ethics Commission on Oct. 5. The group’s co-chairs are Randy Zook, president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Industries of Arkansas, and Stanley Hill, vice president for public affairs and government relations at the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation.

The group opposes Issue 1 because it upsets the balance of power that currently exists between the executive and legislative branches, Hill said.

“If you give this power over to the Legislature, you’re basically minimizing any authority that the governor has other than signing off on legislation and possibly a veto here or there, but still a veto can be overridden by a 51% vote,” he said. “So again, the balance of power is our desire, to see that maintained.”

Arkansas is one of six states where a governor’s veto can be overridden with a simple majority, according to the NCLS. All other states require a supermajority.

In addition to upsetting the balance of power, approving Issue 1 would support a further shift in the direction of a full-time legislature, which is “a really bad idea,” Zook said. 

Legislators are paid a per diem, so more meetings would cost more money. More legislative time means more laws, which means more restrictions, more regulations and more government, he said.

“We don’t need more government, Zook said. “We need government, in most cases, to just stay out of the way and allow private enterprise to put people to work and to grow and flourish.”  

Issue 1 doesn’t upset the balance of power, but rather makes things more equal, Davis said. The Legislature would still be held to the same standards as the governor in terms of only being allowed to address topics listed on the special session agenda.

Currently, the Legislature can add items to the governor’s agenda with a two-thirds vote, so they do have the authority to steer the direction of a special session, Davis said.

“The truth is we already have that authority and we don’t use it; we really hold ourselves in check on that,” she said. “So I think that’s a little bit of fear mongering on people’s end to say that because if that were true, you’d already see us doing it.” 

In the Senate, Davis said lawmakers are very protective of extending into a special session and they don’t take those votes lightly. Being a part-time Legislature allows lawmakers to return to their homes where they can connect more directly with the people they represent, she said.

If Issue 1 is approved, it would go into effect Nov. 9, 2022.

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Antoinette Grajeda, Arkansas Advocate
Antoinette Grajeda, Arkansas Advocate

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.

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