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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Power plays in Little Rock

by John Brummett | April 22, 2021 at 3:04 a.m.

It surprises me that state legislators don’t trust Arkansas voters either. I know why I don’t trust Arkansas voters, at least in their current frame of mind.

They elected these legislators.

But now this Legislature signals that it will exercise its authority to refer proposed constitutional amendments to the next general election ballot by using one of those slots to invite the voters to restrict their ability to make their own laws bypassing legislators.

This proposed amendment says that Arkansas voters would be required to vote by a 60 percent majority, rather than the current simple majority, to approve either a constitutional amendment referred by the Legislature or one placed on the ballot by the people through their petitions and signatures. The provision would apply to publicly initiated acts as well as constitutional amendments, though not to referendums.

So, it would take 50 percent plus one to approve this proposal in November 2022. If it passed, voters could no longer approve anything like it except by 60 percent.

That would be fine with me normally. Anything these legislators want to put into our state Constitution ought to be danged hard to approve.

And political scientists widely agree—and I have joined the chorus in the past—that it’s too easy to amend the state Constitution, leading to clutter and risking passage of something wholly irresponsible.

But context is always important. What has many conservative legislators upset is that Arkansas voters are so cussedly contradictory that the same ones who adore Donald Trump and implanted this nationally ignominious Legislature tend to vote for publicly initiated amendments or acts these legislators have not appreciated—to raise the minimum wage, use marijuana medicinally and gamble on a lottery and at casinos.

Arkansas voters seem to be right-wing on choosing representatives, and left-wing—or wild-winged—when they get a chance to make laws for themselves absent labeling.

So the legislators they have chosen will now ask them to cut back on the practice of making laws for themselves, doing so only by a higher threshold.

My conscience won’t let me go along right now with making it harder for the voters to make laws directly than to elect legislators like these to make laws.

The legislators’ desire is for the voters to trust the right-wingers they reflexively elect—the ones with “Rs” by their names on the ballot and A-pluses in the National Rifle Association mailers—rather than concern themselves with their own thinking on issues.

The principle of making attaching a constitutional amendment arduous is sound. But, as a man once told me, sometimes you must rise above principle.

The current context complicates the issue, particularly considering that legislators also are likely to ask you to approve an amendment authorizing them to call themselves into special session. Only the governor can call a special session now.

This desire rises out of legislator resentment that Gov. Asa Hutchinson mandated masks for a time by his own emergency executive authority. This amendment would let legislators call themselves into special session, perhaps, for example, to pass a bill saying masks shall not be worn except on Halloween or by special permits for costume parties.

The other referral prospects would guarantee free religion or guns galore in the state Constitution more specifically, though those are already guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and interpretations thereof. But there is grandstand appeal in Arkansas in preening with a Bible in one hand and an assault rifle in the other and requiring no background check for either.

And while we’re on the subject of constitutional amendments, we should mention that Hutchinson offered a fine idea for one in an interview broadcast Sunday.

He said we should amend the state Constitution to require something greater than a simple majority for the Legislature to override a governor’s veto.

Most states and the federal government require 60 percent or 67 percent legislative majorities to override a veto. The idea is to balance the power of lawmaking by requiring legislators, upon passing a bill the governor vetoed, to override only by something beyond what was required to pass the bill in the first place. The theory is that the conflict between two co-equal branches of government ought to count as more than an everyday difference of opinion.

But there’s no mood in the Legislature to oblige on that. “It’s not something I’ve thought about,” said state Rep. David Ray, the right-wing sponsor of the proposal for a super-majority before the people can speak directly.

Discerning readers may have picked up by now a theme. It is that this Legislature is seeking to consolidate power unto itself while impairing the people’s direct power and the governor’s already weak authority.

There have been many tragedies of the pandemic. Strengthened legislative power in Arkansas would be among them.

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John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame.

Email him at [email protected] .

Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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