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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: In the balance, unbalanced

by John Brummett | March 7, 2021 at 8:45 a.m.

You might be asking what it would take for Gov. Asa Hutchinson to veto a bill. And I would answer that it would take futile adherence to personal principle and a better state Constitution.

I'm neither excusing nor condemning the governor. I'm just saying. And sometimes it's enough just to say.

I mentioned in a previous column the governor's chiding me for always, or so he alleged, analyzing politicians' actions on the basis of political considerations without acknowledging that sometimes they simply do the right thing.

I don't want to be that way. I want to praise political principle when evidence of it rears its head. But this is not such a time.

Hutchinson believed the "stand your ground" law was unnecessary considering that there is no problem with the state's existing law on self-defense. He also declared himself sensitive to concerns about greater danger for racial minorities under such a law.

And he signed the bill.

He also believes the bill presuming to outlaw abortion altogether and lacking the usual rape or incest exception is highly unlikely to have the supposed effect of facilitating repeal of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court. He also said he'd always been comfortable with the usual rape and incest exception, and hadn't seen any good explanation for leaving it out this time.

At the same midweek session with reporters at which he announced his signing of the stand-your-round bill, he signaled he might sign the anti- abortion bill this week. He said he'd always been pro-life, of course.

Simple political principle would have the governor vetoing both these bills, even facing the certainty of immediate override.

But then I'm also a big fan of pragmatism, and the practical effect would be the same either way. Both would become law.

Often people want politicians to take actions giving them the adrenaline rush of validation of their own views, particularly on emotion-charged issues like these. Thus, they celebrate such actions even if those actions are transparently futile.

But cheers of exhilaration fade.

There was the time a few years ago when pro-choice activists descended on the Capitol on an afternoon when word came that then-Gov. Mike Beebe had vetoed the anti-abortion bill that had drawn them to the Capitol. The marble corridors echoed with their celebration, which would not be heard the next day when the legislative chambers overrode perfunctorily that veto.

The same fate would have awaited a Hutchinson veto on "stand your ground" and would await a veto on the anti-abortion measure.

This state Legislature is so far-gone conservative that there is no hope for it. Its latest absurdity is a bill that could force Twitter and Facebook to let Donald Trump tweet in Arkansas if nowhere else. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge would be the presumed enforcer. She'd be managing editor for social media content for Arkansas. I half-expect someone to amend it to make her editor of the Voices page.

Then there is the antique state Constitution, written as it was for the frontier-independence purpose of setting up a government without consolidated power. It declares that a governor's veto of a bill can be overridden by a simple majority vote in each chamber.

That is an imbalance of power violating the principle of separated equal powers for the legislative and executive branches.

The Legislature has by that provision unchecked authority to make laws. It passes a bill by its simple majority. The governor disapproves of the bill with a veto stamp. The Legislature overrides the veto by a simple majority. The governor is not equal in that scenario. He is as useless as you or I would be. His opinion is not worth the paper his veto is stamped on.

Balancing power would mean that the Legislature would have the right to pass a bill by a majority vote and that the governor would have the power to sign it before it came law, but that the governor's disapproval of a bill should count enough to require override only by a greater ratio than a simple majority.

The U.S. Congress and 37 states require two-thirds votes to override a chief-executive veto. Seven states require three-fifths votes. Arkansas and five other states require weakling governors who can be overridden by simple majorities.

One of these years when citizens' groups are mobilizing to circulate petitions to get some or other proposed constitutional amendment qualified for the ballot, they might consider one to take the veto-override threshold to three-fifths or, better yet, two-thirds.

Requiring a 100 percent legislative vote to override probably would be an imbalance of power favoring the governor.

That's not to say it would make a darn in the short term. I can't see a Governor Sarah Sanders having any differences with this Legislature in what will be less an independent state than an outpost for the next Trumpian insurrection.


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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