The 93rd General Assembly of the Arkansas State Legislature confirmed the passage of two constitutional amendment proposals on Thursday, sending to 2022 midterm election voters two amendments which will reshape the process to pass future constitutional amendments and give the legislature more power to convene itself in times of emergency.
The legislature, allowed to refer three constitutional amendments to voters every regular session, first confirmed Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 10 on Thursday. SJR10, sponsored by State Sen. Breanne Davis of Russellville, would allow the State Legislature to convene itself into extraordinary session provided that the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President Pro Tempore of the State Senate issue a joint proclamation calling for the session or that two-thirds of both chambers sign a proclamation requesting it.
The amendment, which received broad support in both chambers, was filed just a year after Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who currently holds the sole privilege of calling for an extraordinary session, called both chambers into session in response to the then-beginning coronavirus pandemic. That session included the passage of two bills which created the COVID-19 Rainy Day Fund and included an emergency clause that made the two bills go into immediate effect. Davis, in her comments on the Senate floor on Tuesday, said SJR10 puts Arkansas in line with 36 other states who give their legislative branches the same privilege as the governor.
“We wanted to ensure through [SJR10] that special sessions remain special by requiring a higher threshold to allow the legislature to call itself into special session,” Davis said. “We also wanted to ensure that the legislative branch had the ability to call itself into a special session if necessary.”
The other confirmed amendment proposal, House Joint Resolution (HJR) 1005, would raise the bar for the passage of constitutional amendments by voters in the state. Sponsored by State Rep. David Ray, HJR1005 raises the threshold of passage of a constitutional amendment to 60 percent of voters in the state. Previously, passage of a constitutional amendment only required a simple majority of Arkansas voters for passage. The amendment, which received a bit more pushback than its counterpart SJR10, passed by a final 23-6 vote in the state Senate on Thursday which included four senators who declined to register a vote on the amendment.
State Sen. Bart Hester, the Senate sponsor of Ray’s proposal, said that HJR1005 will give future constitutional amendments a vote threshold that matches with the importance of amending a constitution.
“[The state legislature] has different thresholds for votes based on importance,” Hester said. “[HJR1005] says that changing the state’s constitution deserves the utmost importance.”
Opponents of HJR1005 have criticized the amendment’s attempt to placing additional burden on the passage of amendments that Arkansans support. State Rep. David Whitaker outlined his opposition to the amendment in the April 14 committee meeting in the state House.
“I could someday see having an increased threshold for constitutional amendments,” Whitaker said. “But, going above the 50 percent requirement for initiated acts is holding the public to a higher standard than we hold ourselves. So, I’ll be voting no.”
With one constitutional amendment left for the assembly to send to voters, it appears likely that State Sen. Jason Rapert of Conway’s SJR14 will be the final amendment approved. While still awaiting approval in the House, SJR14 passed the Senate by a 27-4 vote on Thursday. If passed by the House and approved by voters in the 2022 midterms, SJR14 would “guarantee that the freedom of religion is not burdened by state and local law,” per the resolution’s text.
Thursday’s marathon session of the state Senate, which didn’t end until after 9 p.m., also included a rigorous parliamentary debate which ended with the failure of State Sen. Clarke Tucker’s long-in-the-works Senate Bill (SB) 701. SB701, an absentee voting integrity bill, was one of Tucker’s most arduous pieces of legislation he filed this session that went through several forms and edits prior to the bill’s failure on Thursday. Tucker’s bill cleared up unclear language regarding the state’s absentee voter process and included both Democratic and Republican initiatives to streamline the absentee balloting process after the 2020 Presidential Election in which significant numbers of Arkansans voted absentee.
The drama on Thursday had little to do with SB701’s content, however. On Wednesday, the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee passed Tucker’s bill out of committee without a voice vote. Using a little-used loophole that allows bills that have a majority of the committee’s support to be passed out without a voice vote, committee members passed the bill on Wednesday afternoon so Tucker could present the bill before the assembly recessed on April 30. However, miscommunication plagued the exchange between committee members who passed the bill out and the committee chair Rapert.
To right the confusion, Tucker made a motion on the Senate floor on Thursday to re-refer SB701 back to the committee for a proper voice vote. After additional discussion and concern that a referral back to committee would effectively kill SB701 due to the lack of time left in the session, Tucker withdrew his request and began to present the bill on its merit to the full Senate body.
The drama didn’t end there, though. Senators opposed to Tucker’s bill argued that the passage of SB701 required a super-majority of senators to approve it because it amended Arkansas’ constitution on issues pertaining to electioneering. The effort, led by State Sen. Mark Johnson, ultimately failed after the Chair of the Senate ruled that Tucker’s bill didn’t amend the constitution and required only a simple majority of legislators.
By the time Tucker stood to present his bill, nearly an hour of parliamentary debate had occurred. Despite some support from a few Senate Republicans and all of the chamber’s Democrats, SB701 failed by a substantial majority with 20 senators voting against the bill.