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Senate OKs resolution to extend legislative session

by Michael R. Wickline | March 24, 2021 at 6:46 a.m.
FILE — The state Capitol is shown in this file photo.

The Arkansas Senate voted Tuesday for a resolution that extends the regular legislative session to April 30 unless the House and Senate agree to end it earlier.

The session originally was to recess April 9.

The Senate voted 29-4 to approve House Concurrent Resolution 1015 by House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado. Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, also sponsored the resolution, which the House approved Monday 92-1. No action by Gov. Asa Hutchinson is required.

Hickey said the regular session will probably run until April 30 before an extended recess begins.

April 30 would be the 110th day of the session, which at that point that would be the longest session since 1931.

Hickey said he hasn't received any backlash from his colleagues about the prospect of a lengthy session.

"There are a lot of factors that have come to play," he said in an interview. "We've had to deal through covid. We got this federal money that is coming down that has created more issues. We all know that there is CARES money that has been used. There have been multiple different type items that we have had to deal with in this session."

CARES refers to the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act signed by then-President Donald Trump in March of last year. Additional pandemic-related funds are coming from President Joe Biden's administration.

Last month's winter snowstorm forced a weeklong session break when many lawmakers could not make it to Little Rock. The Legislature also has a break scheduled to start today to coincide with schools' spring break.

Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, said he voted against HCR1015 because "at some point we have done the people's business and at some point we are just down here longer for no reason.

"We work four- or five-hour days over and over and over and then we want to be here for months longer," Hester said in an interview. "I am for showing up on work day and working a full work day like the people of Arkansas do and, if we were doing that, I'd be willing to stay longer. But when we work part time and want to continue to extend session, I'm not for that."

The other lawmakers to vote against HCR1015 were Democratic Sens. Stephanie Flowers of Pine Bluff, Greg Leding of Fayetteville and Clarke Tucker of Little Rock in the Senate and in the House, Republican Rep. Lane Jean of Magnolia, who is a co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee.

HCR1015 calls for an "extended recess," while lawmakers wait for delivery of population data from last year's U.S. Census that they need to complete their constitutionally-mandated task of drawing new maps for the state's congressional districts.

Interim legislative committees, including the Legislative Council and the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee, will be able to meet starting May 1 under the resolution.

If the General Assembly remains in extended recess for longer than 90 days, all acts that do not contain an emergency clause or a specific effective date will become effective 91 days after April 30, as allowed by the Arkansas Constitution, under the resolution.

The resolution allows the regular session to adjourn as soon as practical after it completes congressional redistricting, Hickey told senators.

"Now there is one other thing in there that we could [adjourn] sine die if we needed to at any time," he said. That's allowed in the resolution if there is an emergency or some other reason a special legislative session is needed.

HCR1015 would allow the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore to reconvene the General Assembly at any time to consider overriding vetoes; correct errors and oversights; complete redistricting; and consider legislation related to the pandemic and covid-19 relief funds. Lawmakers also could further extend the session or end it.

The regular session hits its 89th day April 9.

The longest session in recent years was 101 days in 2013. The 2013 regular session marked the first time since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era in the 19th century that the Republican Party controlled both legislative chambers. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said the length of that session had more to do with the issues tackled, and none was more complex than the proposed Medicaid expansion to provide private health insurance coverage to low-income Arkansans.

Prior to 2013, the last session to last at least 100 days was in 1931, during the Great Depression when the 48th regular meeting of the General Assembly completed its work after 121 days.

The General Assembly regularly met far longer in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The longest was the 38th meeting of the General Assembly in 1911. It lasted 125 days, or more than a third of the year.

By taking a break instead of adjourning at the end of this year's regular session, Shepherd said last week that lawmakers will avoid having to ask Hutchinson to call them into a special session, with possible haggling over what issues could be considered in addition to redistricting.

Information for this article was contributed by Noel Oman and John Moritz of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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