Arkansas lawmakers file, enact fewer state laws than any regular session since 1971

Stuck to focus, says Senate chief

Arkansas state Rep. Lane Jean, R-Magnolia, heads to the well of the House in the state Capitol in Little Rock to present budget bills in this April 6, 2023 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)
Arkansas state Rep. Lane Jean, R-Magnolia, heads to the well of the House in the state Capitol in Little Rock to present budget bills in this April 6, 2023 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

During this year's regular session, Arkansas' state lawmakers filed fewer bills and enacted fewer state laws than any regular session since 1971, according to legislative records.

Legislative leaders cite a variety of reasons for this occurring in the regular session that was dominated by Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' sweeping education overhaul law dubbed the LEARNS Act and a public safety overhaul law called the Protect Arkansas Act as well as a number of social issue-related laws.

Lawmakers introduced 1,439 bills, and lawmakers and Sanders enacted 889 laws in this year's session, according to the General Assembly's website. Sanders allowed two of the bills to become law without her signature.

The Republican governor also vetoed three other bills and a section of an appropriation bill, but the sponsors of the bills said they don't plan to try to override the governor's vetoes. The General Assembly recessed April 7 and legislative leaders said they plan to adjourn the regular session May 1.

During the 1971 regular session, state lawmakers filed 1,438 bills and lawmakers and then-Democratic Gov. Dale Bumpers enacted 829 state laws, according to legislative records.

During the 1979 regular session, state lawmakers introduced 1,964 bills and then-Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton and lawmakers enacted 889 laws -- the same number of laws as the 2023 regular session enacted.

Senate President Pro Tempore Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, said there are a number of reasons for the lower number of bills filed and acts signed into law during this year's regular session.

"I believe the Senate set some parameters early and stuck to them," he said.

For example, Hester said the Senate Revenue and Tax Committee "decided to focus solely on income tax reduction and would not pass out any other tax cut-related bills," and the Senate Public Health, Labor and Welfare Committee "held the line on bills that effected Medicaid spending."

The Senate Education Committee "was careful to consider only bills that did not effect the [LEARNS Act]," he said in a written statement.

"With members seeing these committees holding firm they understood filing bills outside of these parameters would be a non-productive use of time," Hester said.

LEARNS, PROTECT ARKANSAS ACTS

LEARNS stands for literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking and safety.

The 145-page LEARNS Act aims to increase the starting annual teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000 and give teachers making above the minimum a $2,000 raise. The law also creates a voucher program, known as Education Freedom Accounts, for students to attend a private or parochial school or home school. The vouchers will be worth 90% of the per-pupil funding schools receive from the state.

Among other things, the LEARNS Act requires the Arkansas Department of Education to review policies and materials that "promote teaching that would indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as Critical Race Theory," and requires high schools to offer a "career ready" pathway as an alternative way for students to earn a diploma in technical education programs.

House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, said Friday that while the number of bills filed is fewer than in previous sessions, it's worth noting that every member was afforded an opportunity to have their bills filed and presented in committee.

"It's difficult to say exactly why we saw fewer pieces of legislation this year, but having a large freshman class and bills outlining extensive reform to education and criminal justice are likely contributing factors," he said in a written statement.

"Whether it's accomplished in 100 or 1,000 acts, as long as the legislation is helping move Arkansas forward as it did this session, I'm pleased with the results," Shepherd said.

Senate Democratic leader Greg Leding of Fayetteville said a combination of factors led to a lower number of bills and laws enacted into law in this year's regular session.

"A new administration was largely focused on just two main issues, education and public safety," he said.

"And while both the LEARNS Act and the Protect Arkansas Act could (and should) have been multiple pieces of legislation, I don't think, had they been so, that would've significantly bumped up the number of bills filed and passed," Leding said in a written statement.

Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, who sponsored the bill that became the LEARNS Act, declined to speculate about how many normally stand-alone bills are included in the LEARNS Act.

Sen. Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, who sponsored the bill that became the Protect Arkansas Act, said it's difficult to estimate how many normally stand-alone bills are included in the Protect Arkansas Act.

The Protect Arkansas Act aims to overhaul the state's parole system and require people convicted of serious crimes to serve most if not all of their sentences in prison. The 131-page law features other provisions, including supporting child victims of crimes, preparing incarcerated people to enter the workforce and suspending court fines for incarcerated defendants for 120 days after they are released from custody.

Leding said another factor in lowering the number of bills introduced and enacted into law during this year's regular session is the number of the new members in the 100-member House and 35-member Senate.

"The 13 new members of the Senate made for the largest first-term class since 2003," he said. The Senate's 13 new members included former Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, according to Senate officials.

Leding said "I'm not sure where the 27 new members of the House rank in terms of size -- certainly not close to the largest -- but it's still quite a bit of turnover, especially considering that some of the longest-serving members of the House either lost re-election or moved over to the Senate."

The House's 27 new members included former Rep. Grant Hodges, R-Rogers, according to House officials.

House Democratic leader Tippi McCullough of Little Rock said the regular session's slow start can be attributed to the greater number of new legislators.

"Secondly, the Governor's agenda included the omnibus Education, omnibus Public Safety/Crime, Taxes, and Outdoor Tourism which were all ran and passed late in the session which may have contributed to lawmakers waiting on those large, complicated bills and therefore, possibly not filing as many bills regarding those specific topics," she said in a written statement.

Asked if Sanders had any comment on the low number of bills filed and laws enacted in the regular session, Sanders spokesman Alexa Henning said Thursday that "The Governor is thankful for the great partnership she has with President Pro Tem Hester, Speaker Shepherd and the rest of the legislature that were instrumental in helping pass bold, transformational policy changes focused on the issues Arkansans care most about."

DECLINING BILLS AND ACTS

The number of bills filed has generally declined each regular session since peaking at 3,176 in the 2005 regular session.

The exceptions were an increase from 2,235 in the 2011 regular session to 2,492 bills in 2013 -- the first session since Reconstruction in which Republicans controlled the Legislature -- and a small increase from 2,062 in the 2015 session to 2,069 in 2017 as well as an increase from 1,670 in 2019 to 1,727 in 2021.

In the 1989 regular session, 1,576 bills were filed by lawmakers, and their numbers steadily grew until peaking in 2005, according to the General Assembly's website.

The greatest decline in the number of bills during the past 34 years was going from 2,817 in 2007 to 2,285 in the next regular session two years later, according to legislative records.

In the 2005 regular session, the number of appropriations bills totaled 1,481 and that has declined each regular session except for an increase from 596 in 2011 to 751 in 2013, according to legislative records.

Since 2013, the number of appropriations bills has dipped to 662 in 2015, 355 in 2017, 311 in 2019, 273 in 2021 and 203 in 2023.

In December 2006, the state Supreme Court ruled that a $400,000 appropriation for streets and sewers in Bigelow was unconstitutional local legislation. That suit was filed in July 2005 by former Rep. Mike Wilson, D-Jacksonville, who contended the increased use of state money for local projects was a waste of public funds.

Starting in 2007, lawmakers revised the practice in part by sending General Improvement Fund money to eight nonprofit regional districts that directed the funds to projects recommended by lawmakers.

In October 2017, the state Supreme Court ruled, in another suit lodged by Wilson, that laws sending $2.9 million to the nonprofit Central Arkansas Planning and Development District in Lonoke violated the Arkansas Constitution.

At that time, legislative leaders said they had already begun phasing out the system of lawmakers directing the spending of state money through private nonprofit groups.

Starting in the 2019 regular session, the Legislature axed the filing deadline for regular bills in a move that legislative leaders said eliminated the need for "shell" bills, which lack details, and allowed for more efficient use of legislative staff.

In the past several regular sessions, the House has been referring "shell" bills to the House Journal Committee, which had nine bills referred to it in this year's regular session. In contrast, about 180 "shell" bills were referred to the committee in both the 2015 and 2017 regular sessions.

Kevin Anderson, assistant director of fiscal at the Bureau of Legislative Research, said the number of appropriations bills dropped from 273 in the 2021 regular session to 203 in this year's regular sessions largely due to the filing of fewer capital improvement appropriations.

In the 1989 regular session, the number of acts totaled 995.

Their numbers steadily grew until hitting 1,843 in 2001. The peak was 2,325 in 2005. The numbers of laws dropped until 2013, when Republicans seized control of the Legislature from Democrats. The acts passed that year hit 1,520 but the numbers have declined since then, except when they increased from 1,092 in the 2019 regular session to 1,116 in 2021 regular session.