Arkansas legislative panels' full agendas keep some commenters waiting

Carla Swanson sat waiting for nearly two hours Tuesday, watching as the House Judiciary Committee deliberated one bill after another.

The lawmakers discussed legislation affecting the implementation of the death penalty, then turned to a bill dealing with child custody laws. Members later took up two bills that would raise court fees. About an hour in, Swanson, who attends nearly every committee meeting to argue against proposals that would add restrictions on registered sex offenders like her son, heard the chairman call up one of the four bills she had been waiting on.

But before she had a chance to speak against the bill -- which proposes to keep sex offenders from working at police and fire departments -- Swanson watched as the sponsor pulled down the bill to fix a drafting error.

Swanson kept waiting.

The regular session of the Legislature has passed its two-month mark, and dozens of bills are on some committees' public agendas. Some lawmakers and public advocates have begun to question whether more can be done to let people know more precisely when a bill they are interested in will be discussed.

In the Arkansas Legislature, committee meetings are generally the only place where members of the public, lobbyists and other officials can offer public comments on bills before they are sent to the floor of either chamber, where debate is limited to lawmakers.

When a bill is assigned to a committee, it is placed on that committee's public agenda, which is published before each meeting. Any bill on the regular agenda has the potential to be considered at any committee meeting, but some bills linger for weeks or even months before the sponsor asks the committee to act on the bill. Only bills set for a special order of business -- bills that tend to be more controversial pieces of legislation -- have a set date for a hearing.

Of the more than 1,500 bills and almost 170 resolutions that have been filed since the Legislature convened in mid-January, just 31 have been scheduled for special orders, according to a full review of committee agendas by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. (A 2,049-page government reorganization bill, House Bill 1763, was originally filed as 16 separate bills, each of which received a special order of business, before being rolled up into one bill, which was also considered on special order. This newspaper's count of bills that received special orders counts HB1763 once.)

So far, 515 bills have been signed into law.

"I think it could be used more," Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, said of special orders of business. Hendren added that some lawmakers have taken concerns to him about constituents traveling to the state Capitol for a bill, only to have a hearing fall through.

However, Hendren added, "It's just not always possible." He noted that as work and bills pile up toward the end of a session, lawmakers are sometimes bound by time constraints to get their bills considered. Hendren said he would likely look into any possible rule changes to the committee process once the session is adjourned.

Swanson said she understood that the quick pace of the Legislature -- which only meets in a regular session for a few months in odd-numbered years -- limits lawmakers' ability to set strict schedules. She said she had working relationships with some committee chairmen in past sessions that allowed her to ask for notice of when bills dealing with sex offenders would run, but she does not have such a rapport with current chairmen.

"It would be nice to know" when a bill is running ahead of time, she said in an interview last week. "But I also know, I've been up here since 2011, and I know that things happen so you can't write it in the agenda in gold that this bill's definitely going to come up."

Swanson, who seldom succeeds in persuading lawmakers against adding more punishments for offenders, said that "good days" are when a committee doesn't consider the legislation she is watching.

"I just come and listen, and hopefully it won't run," Swanson said.

Others besides interested members of the public say it would help their efforts if they had more notice on when bills come up.

Arkansas' prosecutor coordinator, Bob McMahan, is another regular at judiciary committee meetings. (He often supports bills that Swanson opposes.) McMahan said that while his job is to attend each meeting, individual prosecutors who work far from Little Rock have to plan ahead to travel and speak on bills.

"Often, it's difficult for some of the [elected prosecutors] to get away from the office for a couple of days" and offer testimony on bills, McMahan said. Adding more special orders "might be easier for them," he said.

One of the lawmakers who says he took concerns to Hendren, Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, said he estimated that between 10 percent and 15 percent of bills spark enough interest to warrant a special order of business.

Moving more bills that are being amended or delayed for other reasons to the deferred list -- which generally guarantees the bill will not be considered at a meeting -- would also add clarity, Ballinger said.

"If we used the deferred list more and set things for special order ... I think that would fix it," Ballinger said.

Comments about the system grew more public earlier this month when the House Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor met after the House adjourned on March 12 in order to whittle away at an agenda that had grown to more than 50 bills. After 6 p.m., the committee heard and quickly advanced, without any public comment, two bills to exempt teenage workers, small businesses and some nonprofit groups from most of the minimum wage increase approved by voters in November.

The Democratic Party of Arkansas accused the committee of advancing the bills under "the literal cover of darkness."

David Couch, the attorney who led the campaign for the wage increase, said he or another representative would have spoken against the bills if they had known the bills were going to be considered.

"A bill that made it out may not have made it out if someone had said something," Couch said. "There's no reason that the committees can't give you 24 hours' notice."

The sponsor of the minimum-wage exemption bills, Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs, said she had filed the bills the week before and sat through several hours of the committee meeting on March 12 before having the opportunity to run them. (One of the bills, House Bill 1752, is pending consideration on the House floor, while the other, House Bill 1753, has been re-referred to the committee.)

"I hardly slipped it in," Lundstrum said last week. "I was sitting there waiting my turn like everyone else."

The after-hours consideration of Lundstrum's minimum wage bills also has prompted complaints about the increasing number of committee meetings in the afternoon and late into the evenings to get work done.

Sen. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, tweeted earlier this month that committees should not "take up controversial legislation outside normal hours."

Most committee meetings start at 10 a.m. during the session and adjourn around noon, before the House and Senate are called into order in the afternoon.

"Thank goodness I work in the afternoon," said Swanson, who said she works in a call center. "But when they meet in the afternoon, I can't be here."

However, Lundstrum said that limiting committee meetings to the mornings would likely result in either the Legislature meeting later into the year, or cutting discussions short. Both she and House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, said that keeping meeting agendas open allowed lawmakers to keep discussion moving and made the consideration of bills efficient.

"I think it provides some flexibility to allow the business to take place," Shepherd said. "With regard to a bill that's in committee, the fact that it's on the agenda, I think that's valuable, that people need to know it can be brought up."

He added, "On the big bills, I think most committees use the special order so that people know when specifically it's going to be brought up."

Even scheduled orders of business, however, can fall through.

Tuesday's meeting of the House Judiciary Committee was set for a special order of business to consider House Bill 1694, a bill that would ease restrictions on carrying guns into schools, public buildings and college campuses. The bill drew more than 40 people who signed up to speak in opposition, as well as about 15 public school teachers who were there with the pro-gun-control group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

But when the bill was called up, the sponsor, Rep. Richard Womack, R-Arkadelphia, quickly had the bill placed on the committee's deferred list, ending discussion. Womack said later that he had realized the night before that he didn't have the votes needed to advance the bill.

Alyce Zottoli, a middle school teacher in the Little Rock School District and member of Moms Demand Action, said she suspected the deferment of the bill may have had to do with the large turnout from teachers on spring break.

One or two members of Moms Demand Action, easily identifiable by their red T-shirts, are usually in attendance for every House Judiciary Committee meeting, where most gun bills are heard. In addition, Zottoli said, the group keeps five or six "minute moms" available to go to the Capitol if an important bill comes up.

"We're really good about communication and organization and making sure that if there is something that needs attendance, that someone can commit themselves to it," Zottoli said.

Asked how stricter scheduling by committees would affect the groups' advocacy efforts, Zottoli gave a simple response.

"It would be far more convenient," she said.

A Section on 03/25/2019