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Brawner: Stalemates, not shutdowns, in state's future?

Posted: November 9, 2013 - 12:03pm
Steve Brawner
Steve Brawner

Could there be a state government shutdown, considering the federal government shutdown was so much fun? It wouldn’t go that far, but the way state law is written could help create extended legislative stalemates in the coming years.

In Arkansas, all appropriations bills — any time the Legislature spends money — require a three-fourths majority in both the House and the Senate to pass. Because there are only 35 senators, a minority of nine could gum up the entire process by taking a principled stand or by making demands for their districts.

Nine senators — that’s not a lot of people, and there are some issues where passions run deep. Some of the senators who voted for the Medicaid private option this past session have already drawn primary opponents who want to stop it in its tracks, and it will require 75 percent votes session after session. That’s the kind of issue where some on both sides won’t be willing to compromise.

There is a precedent for stalemate, or something like it. In 2003, the regular session ended with so many unfinished budget bills that Gov. Huckabee had to immediately call a special session, and that was when Democrats dominated both chambers. The environment in Little Rock is more partisan today, though no more contentious. Republicans hold a 51-48-1 majority in the House (with one Green Party member) and a 21-13 majority in the Senate (with one vacancy).

But things worked out in 2003, and they likely would again, no matter how divisive the issue. The federal shutdown occurred because Congress (again) did not pass a budget, it had to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government, Republicans used that opportunity to try to defund Obamacare, and Democrats and President Obama refused to negotiate. While Congress lately has been driven by a series of deadlines and manufactured crises, Arkansas writes its budgets far in advance of the fiscal year. It also runs a surplus, as opposed to the federal government, which is awash in red ink.

There are other reasons why future stalemates in Arkansas will get resolved before too long. The Legislature has a more collegial spirit than Congress has. While there are 535 members of Congress, there are only 135 Arkansas legislators, so everyone is a familiar face. There’s a lot less money in Little Rock than in Washington, Arkansas legislators are term limited, and they don’t attract nearly the attention that members of Congress do. That means they don’t have the same incentives as full-time Washington politicians, who can make a name for themselves — even become presidential contenders — by being obstructionist.

The most important reasons a stalemate in Arkansas wouldn’t last long are more personal than political. Legislators aren’t paid full-time salaries, and the Legislature rarely attracts candidates who are independently wealthy. After a three-month legislative session, they’ve got business to attend to, bosses to please, and spouses who are ready for them to stop playing politics for a while. Legislators who kept their colleagues working overtime in Little Rock would become unpopular, lessening their ability to get anything else done.

On the other hand, the Legislature probably will become more partisan, not less, and issues that are dividing the country are filtering down to Little Rock. There won’t be a shutdown in Arkansas’ future, but there could be short-term legislative stalemates, and a lot of unhappy spouses.

Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is brawnersteve@mac.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.

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