It sounded like a technical delaying tactic until it sounded like something that might blow the lid off state government.
So, it bore looking into. That resulted in a predictable conclusion that fell in the in-between. This matter has implications a bit more than a technical delaying matter and quite a bit less than an explosion.
The best that public-education advocates could hope for from the dustup is more time for challenging the LEARNS Act while giving due process to the tiny, long-troubled Marvell-Elaine school district. Then there is the only mildly conceivable prospect of entertainment value in watching Gov. Sarah Sanders and her legislator rubber stamps scramble to pass emergency clauses for scores of mishandled bills including appropriations vital to keep state government running into the new fiscal year July 1.
The issue begins with whether the law is the law is the law, which is not always quite so.
The state Constitution says the Legislature can declare--via passage of an emergency clause that is to be voted on separately from a bill--that the bill takes effect as law immediately. Otherwise, effectiveness occurs 90 days after adjournment of the legislative session.
The current legislative leadership says the practice in recent years has been to handle that in a single vote with a motion for passage of the bill containing the emergency clause, or simply to pass a bill with an emergency clause without mentioning that and recording the emergency clause.
So, we have the clear words in the Constitution on one hand. On the other, we have the way they've normally done things in recent years in the Legislature.
One would want to go with the Constitution, it would seem. But the practice has had no real effect because, most always, bills got enough votes for passage to meet the two-thirds majority threshold for the emergency clause. That was true with the LEARNS Act.
The story continues with one tiny struggling school district, Marvell-Elaine. For quite a while now, its enrollment has been below the 350-student minimum required to avoid consolidation. But there was no easily accessible or well-performing adjoining district. So, the state waived the circumstance until eventually deciding it had to do something since the district's distress was rated Level 5, meaning it needed taking over.
Then along came the LEARNS Act. Amid its meandering bulk--it's an "omnibus" bill throwing unrelated education topics together to force Democrats to vote against a teacher raise if they voted against the voucher system--there was a section authorizing the state to arrange for a management firm to take over a district in such cases.
In May, fortified by this presumably in-effect provision in the new world of LEARNS, the state Education Board voted to give $250,000 of the Marvell district's money to the Freedom Education Foundation, a charter school management firm with schools in Arkansas and Washington, D.C. The firm would run the district, or at least partner with the district by state mandate.
Marvell patrons expressed outrage, mainly on the argument that they'd had no time for real community input on the abrupt selection. They contend this Freedom outfit's schools aren't doing much better than Marvell-Elaine.
Enter Ali Noland, a smart pro-public education lawyer formerly a clerk for the Arkansas Court of Appeals and now a soon-departing member of the Little Rock School Board. She went to work for Marvell plaintiffs and discovered that the state Constitution required an emergency-clause process that neither the Senate nor House had followed. She also cited additional potential violations in that no explanation for the emergency was provided in the law, as a state Supreme Court precedent seems to require, and the bill, being an omnibus behemoth, presumed to apply an emergency only to named sections, not the entire bill.
Why does any of that matter? Absent a viable emergency clause, LEARNS wouldn't take effect for 90 days after adjournment of the session, meaning in July. The Education Board would not yet possess the authority it had exercised. Marvell could get extra time for community input or a different decision.
Meantime, the group hoping to circulate petitions to repeal LEARNS at the ballot box might get more time. Lawyers working on a broad suit to seek to invalidate LEARNS would prefer to sue a statewide school system not yet in effect rather than one already up and running.
Appropriations bills are passed kind of the same way, sometimes in batches, with an assumption that of course they'd take effect with the new budget year July 1--prior to the run of 90 days.
So, this is a bit of a thing. And it will soon start, and maybe end, or maybe stir a pot, before a Pulaski County judge.
For the record, the governor and legislative leaders express contempt for the whole thing, which they see as ticky-tack nonsense.
In their defense, they don't mean exactly that a sentence in the state Constitution is nonsense. But they prefer the other sentence letting them set their own rules of operation.
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.