Guest writer

OPINION | JOE JETT: No on Issue 1

Protect the citizen legislature

It has been an honor and privilege to have served in the General Assembly for the last 10 years. It has been an experience that I wish all Arkansans could experience if they so wished.

Unfortunately, I feel that if Issue 1 were to pass, it will severely limit the number of Arkansas citizens who could actually find the time to serve.

Issue 1 is a proposed constitutional amendment referred to the ballot by the General Assembly. It would allow the Legislature to call itself into a special session at any time, with either a joint proclamation from the speaker of the House and the Senate president pro tempore, or written approval from two-thirds of the full General Assembly. (The governor would still be able to convene a special session of the Legislature, as currently allowed in the Constitution.)

Not only would the Legislature be able to call itself into session to take up a special issue, but once that issue is addressed, we'd be able to stay in session with that same two-thirds approval.

There are several problems with this proposal. It threatens our representative "citizen legislature," upsets the important balance of power between branches of government, and could lead to a system where the Legislature is in session more often than not.

For more than 200 years, since Arkansas was a territory, ours has been a part-time "citizen legislature," where representatives are elected from every walk of life, from teachers to bankers, doctors, home builders, and every job in between. Most would agree voters benefit from representation that brings a wide range of experiences to the table, rather than a full-time legislative body made up of "professional politicians," like we have in Washington, D.C.

It has been a privilege to serve my constituents in the General Assembly, and I've gladly devoted the time and energy it takes to be an active and engaged member. However, not everyone is able to do that while holding down a job back home.

Already, the General Assembly convenes for a minimum 60-day regular session every odd-numbered year (usually extended closer to 100 days). In even-numbered years, legislators meet for a 30-day session to consider budget matters. Outside those two windows, the governor can call a special session. Plus, committees meet regularly in the interim.

If we add to that sessions also called by legislators, the General Assembly could literally find itself in session year-round. How many people in your community would be able to dedicate the time required to serve at the Capitol?

Arkansas has held 30 special sessions in the last 35 years. (That number is nearly 60 percent higher in Florida, where legislative leaders can call a session.) Already, the National Conference of State Legislatures, a group that tracks operations of state legislatures throughout the country, lists Arkansas as one of the states whose legislators say they spend more than "two-thirds of a full-time job" on legislative work.

Issue 1 would make Arkansas an outlier among states. While 36 states allow either the governor or legislature to call a special session, only five states allow a session to be called simply by proclamation of the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore.

This may sound like distrust of those presiding officers; it's not. Those leaders are fair and proven members, respected by their colleagues and constituents, and I consider both of them personal friends. However, we don't know who will be in those positions, or any legislative position, 10 years from now, or 50 years from now.

Like any constitutional amendment, this departure from precedent would impact our state for years to come and should not be taken lightly.

Issue 1 would also create a shift in the balance of power between our branches of government. In Arkansas, the governor's veto of a bill can be overturned by a simple majority vote of the Legislature. Reserving the power to call a special session for the governor somewhat balances that weak veto. (None of the other five states that allow legislative leadership to call a special session also allow the legislature to overturn a veto so easily.)

A healthy equilibrium among the branches is a cornerstone for good government, and one we shouldn't take lightly.

The burden of near-constant sessions would no doubt be costly for taxpayers, but the biggest price is what we'd give up by restricting legislative service to only those who can afford to spend the majority of their time in Little Rock. We'll be limiting legislative office to those who are retired, don't have to work, or those who make legislating a full-time job, while making it nearly impossible for the teachers, nurses, small-business people--the average Arkansan--to serve.

Please protect our citizen legislature by voting against Issue 1.

State Rep. Joe Jett of Success, chairman of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, is retiring after 10 years in the Legislature.