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Across rural Arkansas, conservative-minded people adoring of Donald Trump and resentful of government rules have elected droves of Republican state legislators to reflect their adorations and resentments.

Beginning last March with the emergence of a virus those people widely believed or suspected to be hyped flu, they've watched the governor of their state--whom they still sort of like if only out of habit--presume to order them to wear masks and not go to the local cafe and not have family and friends over for beer or Christian fellowship or both.

Why, they even heard the governor advise that he'd prefer that either they not go physically to church--but do so in spirit and on their computers--or at least separate themselves from their brethren by six-foot pew gaps.

They never thought they'd see the day when government would encourage the people not to worship the Lord or join hands in prayer. Thank heaven, they said, for Mr. Trump, because he, at least, honors church-going.

When they've run into their local state legislator, they've masklessly assailed him or her for sitting idly by and letting the governor destroy their liberties like some danged Ocasio-Cortez.

And that rural Republican legislator, I'll wager, has replied with something like, "I know it. He's claiming he's got constitutional authority under an emergency to do that, and the problem is, you see, that the Legislature only meets once every two years unless he calls us in for special session, which he ain't gonna do, 'cause he knows we'd put a quietus on some of that.

"So, it's just a mess that I'm afraid we're going to have to put up with until we get down for the next regular session in January. And just know that it ain't me telling you what you can and can't do. I'm powerless right now until we're sworn in for our session. But I ain't powerless for long. I'm gonna fix Asa's little red wagon, don't you worry."

Now that regular session starts in eight days and it's time, these rural legislators announce, to pull some overdue reins on Asa.

Last week the Associated Press moved a national article on this very dynamic. In most Republican-dominated states, legislatures were not in session when the virus broke and weren't scheduled to go into session until this month. And in those states, governors, some Democrats but many Republicans, availed themselves of emergency authority to try to fortify against the strain on hospitals.

The first state example cited in the article was that, in Arkansas, legislators were primed to debate the very role of the governor in unilaterally acting in an emergency.

There must have been recommendations on how to proceed against the virus that went out early from the National Governors Association, because Asa was adhering to a broad template seemingly applied with marginal variation by governors across the country.

Basically, a health emergency meant the governor could authorize his health department to impose and monitor restrictions. So, when rural conservatives went into the gas station to pay Joe for the gallonage they'd just pumped, and encountered Plexiglas between them and Joe, they, and Joe, commiserated such silliness.

The basis for this gubernatorial power was that the executive article of state constitutions implicitly authorized governors to act singularly in cases of emergency, since it would be impractical to wait to respond to an actually occurring emergency until legislators could descend on the capital city to vote on every emergency action the governor might presume to take.

The more progressive-minded Arkansans who have decried Hutchinson's inadequate imposition and enforcement of restrictions might ought to keep in mind--merely for context--what they'd have had if we were waiting on 135 state legislators to decide everything.

Having said all that, let me hasten to advise that there are indications of hopefulness that, except for a few right-wing grandstanding blowhards, legislators will look only for fairly responsible curbs on the governor that he might actually go along with.

His emergency declarations could be restricted to shorter periods of effectiveness and subjected to more frequent legislative sign-offs involving larger numbers of legislators exercising their "review and advise" interim function.

The idea bandied about that a governor's emergency declaration would expire in two days unless the legislators hastily descended into session to sanction it ... that's a little impractical and ill-advised.

Hutchinson's position is that he will defend his constitutional authority, of course, but that the details of specific exercises of that authority are matters he'll gladly put on the table for discussion.

But he says it'd be a problem for him if legislators tried to run the Health Department.

It'd be a problem for more than the governor.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.


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