In the Nov. 8 general election, Arkansas voters will weigh a proposed constitutional amendment that would enable Arkansas to join 36 other states in allowing the Legislature to call itself into special session.
The proposed constitutional amendment is Issue 1 on the ballot. Early voting starts Monday.
In the 2021 regular session, Arkansas' Republican-dominated Legislature voted to refer the proposed constitutional amendment to voters in this year's general election. State Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, and state Rep. Fran Cavenaugh, R-Walnut Ridge, sponsored the proposed ballot measure through Senate Joint Resolution 10.
In 2020, executive actions taken by Arkansas Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson in response to the covid-19 pandemic prompted some Republican lawmakers to express frustration that they didn't get a say on certain issues. They responded in the 2021 regular session by referring this proposed constitutional amendment to voters.
The governor may call special sessions in all 50 states, and the Legislature may also call itself into special session in all but 14 states, said Mick Bullock, a spokesman for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Besides Arkansas, the other states where only a governor can call a special session include Alabama, California, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas and Vermont, according to the conference of legislatures.
Voters in at least Arkansas, Idaho and Kentucky are considering ballot measures to allow the legislature in their states to call itself into special session in this year's general election, Bullock said.
The ballot proposal in Idaho stems from Idaho lawmakers' dissatisfaction with restrictions that Republican Gov. Brad Little put in place in 2020 to reduce coronavirus infections and deaths, according to The Associated Press.
The ballot measure in Kentucky came after Republican lawmakers found themselves on the sidelines for most of 2020 as Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear issued orders responding to the covid-19 pandemic, according to The Associated Press.
Cavenaugh said Arkansas voters should vote for Issue 1 because it would allow for an equalization of power between the executive and legislative branches of government.
"It puts us at the same level of being able to call ourselves in for a special session," she said.
"It is not a dig in at the executive branch because we are still leaving that power with the executive branch, so [the governor] can call us into special session if [the governor] wants to," Cavenaugh said.
Randy Zook, co-chairman of the Arkansans Against Issue 1 committee, said voters should cast their ballots against Issue 1 because voter approval of the proposed ballot measure would make it harder to have a citizen-based Legislature.
"The Legislature already meets annually and in special sessions," said Zook, who also is president and chief executive officer for the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Arkansas. "Issue 1 gives the power to call a special session to only two people, which could result in frequent sessions. This would inhibit many people from being able to serve."
The Legislature meets in regular session in odd-numbered years, and in a shorter fiscal session in even-numbered years. In addition, governors occasionally call special sessions.
With the approval of voters, Issue 1 would permit the General Assembly to convene in an extraordinary session by the submission of the signatures of two-thirds of the members of the 35-member Senate and 100-member House or by a joint written proclamation of the speaker of the House and the Senate president pro tempore.
Lawmakers would be required to state the reason for the special session, and once that purpose is accomplished, the session could be extended by up to 15 days by a two-thirds majority of both chambers.
If voters approved Issue 1 on Nov. 8, it would become effective on Nov. 9.
Under current law, only the governor can call a special session and the governor sets the agenda for that session.
Cavenaugh said sometimes the Legislature meets in session too often, "but there are times emergencies arrive that our citizens want heard and so that's when we need to be able to call ourselves in."
Asked for examples of such emergencies, she said "it could be anything."
During the covid-19 pandemic, state lawmakers were concerned about various pandemic-related issues and constituents wanted the Legislature to convene in special session, "so that's what really brought it to light," Cavenaugh said.
Zook said "managing emergency situations is an executive function, just like managing day-to-day operations."
Cavenaugh maintained it would be difficult to get two-thirds of the House and Senate for the Legislature to call itself into a special session under the proposed constitutional amendment.
She said the proposed constitutional amendment includes a provision allowing the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore to call the Legislature into special session through a joint written proclamation "as a secondary way to call us in."
Cavenaugh said the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore are not going to call the Legislature into a special session without the support of fellow lawmakers.
[ISSUE 1: Read the ballot title for proposed constitutional amendment » arkansasonline.com/1023issue1/]
Zook said only five other states allow only the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore to call Legislature into a special session, and all five states have a much higher threshold to override a veto from a governor.
The five states are Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois and Ohio, based on information from the NCSL.
Asked how often does he think the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore would call special sessions on their own if Issue 1 is approved, Zook said "We trust our current leaders, but we don't know who will be in power in the future and what their intentions to call a special session might be.
"Issue 1 changes the constitution and creates a major departure from how our three branches of government have operated by shifting power from the executive branch to the legislative branch," he said.
"Our executive branch is already weakened by the legislature being able to override a veto with a simple majority."
Arkansans Against Issue 1 is the only ballot committee opposing Issue 1 and no ballot committee promoting Issue 1 has registered with the Arkansas Ethics Commission, according to its website. Arkansans Against Issue 1 registered with the ethics commission Oct. 5.
Besides Zook, Stanley Hill, vice president of public affairs and government relations for the Arkansas Farm Bureau, is Arkansans Against Issue 1's other co-chairman.
Hutchinson said Friday in a written statement that "I will vote No on Issue 1."
"The General Assembly is not designed to be a full-time legislature under our Constitution and there would be insufficient checks on the legislative body when it has the ability to stay in session for any reason that the members support," the Republican governor said.
Earlier this month, Republican gubernatorial nominee Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, "I think that our Legislature spends a lot of time in session as it is.
"I think that a full-time Legislature is probably not the best thing for the state of Arkansas right now," she said.
Asked if that means she plans to vote against the proposed constitutional amendment in the Nov. 8 general election, Sanders said, "We'll see. I will tell you when I get there."
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Chris Jones Jones and Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Ricky Dale Harrington Jr. said they oppose the proposed constitutional amendment.