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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Signifying nothing

by John Brummett | March 31, 2021 at 3:14 a.m.

What you don't want when you call 911 is to encounter on the other end of the line a meeting of the Arkansas Legislative Council.

You don't want your pleas to confront a roomful of politicians inserting themselves into your emergency, posturing for their constituents about whether your emergency is real, flapping gums, making motions, voting on motions and ending up doing nothing except eventually consenting with a grumble to send somebody over for whatever that emergency was that you called about, if you can remember.

It's not merely that this Legislature has passed a barrage of petty, resentful and state-besmirching legislation addressing nonexistent problems. It's that this Legislature has hamstrung the governor's authority to fulfill his constitutional duty to operate as the chief executive of the state, necessitating in emergency conditions certain unilateral authority.

By the state Constitution, the Legislature makes laws and spends money. The governor executes the laws and oversees the handling of the appropriated money and runs the government day-to-day.

The governor logically assumes special unilateral authority when there is an emergency, such as a pandemic. If a tornado wipes you out, you want the governor to send help without having first to assemble the state Legislature for permission.

The Legislature didn't like it that Gov. Asa Hutchinson mandated masks. The folks back home didn't like it. Or at least the ones who made all the noise didn't like it.

The Legislature didn't like it that Hutchinson oversaw the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency aid. It didn't like that he or his agencies kept sticking their noses into the local diner's business, or the local gas station's.

It didn't like that legislators could do nothing more than review actions already taken and sign off through designated emissaries.

After a year of Hutchinson's being too authoritarian on the virus for their tastes, but not authoritarian enough for many of us, the Legislature enacted a process requiring the spectacle that took place Monday morning.

The governor had to go over and submit to the Legislative Council, an extra-constitutional entity in the first place, to seek approval for his extension of the pandemic emergency period, then endure legislators as they grandstanded about the onerousness of all this silly virus business even as they couldn't stir up enough votes to do anything about it.

In the end, noise happened.

This was draconian stuff the governor was proposing. He wanted to delay your tax-filing deadline. He wanted to be able to help food-stamp recipients. He wanted to keep afoot a special small-business relief system.

He didn't want to declare a virus emergency ended and send that kind of message when we need hundreds of thousands of residents to get their vaccines so that we can reach herd immunity.

He wanted legislators to let him do his job.

He assured legislators that constituents could burn their masks after today.

I mean, that's the thing: These conservative legislators are rising up against a conservative governor, albeit one with a penchant for responsible behavior. They're rising up against a governor who has been meeker against the virus than most governors.

This situation might be different if, say, I was governor and ordering businesses to shut down and people to lock down and that everyone had to wear masks but that legislators had to wear six-ply ones so we could be spared any hearing of what they were saying.

Asa has been Sarah Huckabee Sanders Lite. He's signed all the legislators' mean bills.

Despite that, Sen. Alan Clark called during this nearly two-hour ordeal for ending the pandemic declaration altogether, saying, "We are past time" for the Legislature to act.

If only he'd been talking about sine die adjournment.

The Legislature would have the power to make a law barring a governor from issuing any order in an emergency that closed or restricted a business or forced any citizen to wear any face-covering against his will.

Then we could have litigation about whether the law infringed on the state constitutional authority of a governor to exercise executive power.

It wouldn't be the first time an Arkansas Legislature passed a law that courts threw out.

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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