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Saturday, August 23, 2014, 12:38 p.m.
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Special session highlights Arkansas' old Capitol

By ANDREW DEMILLO The Associated Press

This article was published June 27, 2014 at 7:10 a.m.

LITTLE ROCK — The last time Arkansas lawmakers took up any substantial legislation in the Old State House building, wireless was something that had just been invented by Guglielmo Marconi and a tweet was something you heard from the birds outdoors.

But with the House under renovation, members of the chamber are conducting next week's special session in the historic building that served as Arkansas' state Capitol until 1911. Even for a session that's expected to last three days, it's a big change for a chamber that prides itself on being the more technologically advanced of the Legislature.

The House and Senate plan to convene Monday afternoon for a special legislative session to address rising teacher insurance premiums and an influx of state inmates at county jails. House officials began looking weeks ago at the possibility of meeting in either a building adjacent to the state Capitol or the Old State House, located a mile away and currently serving as a state history museum. The Senate will meet at its chamber in the state Capitol.

The Legislature first met at the Old State House in 1836, the year Arkansas became a state. Its last session was held there in 1909, the same year Marconi won the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on developing radio communications.

House leaders are touting the idea as a way to promote one of the state's tourist attractions and educate the public on Arkansas' political history.

"We hope that by the House holding the special session there this will result in a renewed interest in the Old State House for all Arkansans," House Chief of Staff Gabe Holmstrom said.


PERIOD PIECES, SORT OF: For the session, the House will be using its former chamber and officials are mimicking the same layout of the chamber at the current state Capitol. The 1885 House chamber had been housing "On the Stump," an exhibit on 19th century politics in Arkansas, which was moved to make way for the special session.

Nearly half of the 100 House members will use 1800s replica desks from the museum, while the other half will be seated at metal folding tables and chairs.

House Speaker Davy Carter will be seated at a replica of the desk former President Bill Clinton used in the Oval Office.


TAME BY COMPARISON: Any fights over teacher insurance premiums and prison beds will be tame by comparison to past debates in the Old State House. The most famous incident occurred in 1837, when House Speaker John Wilson fatally stabbed state Rep. Joseph J. Anthony after a fight the two started on the House floor.

The chamber where the stabbing occurred is serving as the overflow room for visitors to watch the special session next week.


VOTING LIKE IT'S 1909: House members are going old school and casting their votes by roll call, rather than the electronic voting machines normally used at the state Capitol. House staff also said they won't be displaying the chamber's votes on a large screen like they do in the modern Capitol. The votes will still be recorded electronically and available on the Legislature's website.

The House, however, will continue live streaming its sessions on the Internet so the public can watch online if they can't make it in person.


POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE: This will be the third time the Legislature has met in the Old State House since its last session there in 1909, but House and museum officials say this will be the first time for substantial bills to be taken up in the building in more than 100 years.

Lawmakers convened at the Capitol in 1951 to dedicate the Old State House as a museum, with many members of the Legislature appearing in "period costumes supplemented by false moustaches," according to an Arkansas Gazette article from that year.

The Legislature returned in 1983 for another commemorative session, featuring a joint address by then-governor Clinton. The members present for that session included a young state senator named Mike Beebe, who three decades later is serving out his final year as governor.


NIGHTRIDERS, TOY GUNS: The topics on the agenda have changed since the last regular session at the Old State House. The measures approved during that session included an act to suppress and punish nightriding, a measure aimed at stopping a rash of violence targeted at cotton farmers and blacks in the early 1900s. The Legislature approved a separate measure aimed at preventing lynchings and mob violence.

Another measure outlawed the manufacture, use and sale of toy guns and pistols and cannon crackers, a term for firecrackers. Violators would face fines between $5 and $50.

The Legislature also agreed to set aside $1,000 to purchase artificial limbs for ex-Confederate soldiers and sailors, and created the Arkansas History Commission.

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hah406 says... June 27, 2014 at 9:07 a.m.

Nice piece about things that have happened at the Old Statehouse. Funny thing...I can think of a couple of our representatives that would probably like to stab each other right now!

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