Tying a bow on legislative session

Monday, June 12, 2017 9:00 am

Chris Villines
AAC Executive Director

The bow has been neatly tied on the 91st General Assembly’s regular session, and the results will come as Arkansas unwraps new laws over the next two years. As with all sessions, there are surprises, there are unintended consequences both good and bad, and there are boatloads of promises and progression for our state.

The speed limits on our interstates may now climb to 75 miles per hour, guns will be allowed in places heretofore outlawed, you will now be able to present your iPhone for an Arkansas Driver’s License check, and marijuana rules will be set across the state.

Mixed in with all of this are a myriad of bills affecting county government, and as is usually the case your staff here at the Association of Arkansas Counties found itself in the middle of some 500 odd bills that we vetted, tracked and ultimately either supported, opposed or massaged to county approval.

The process we follow is tried and true, and it all begins and ends with you — our county and district officials. Debbie Wise is masterful at organizing and leading all of our member associations to prepare a package of legislation the AAC ultimately supports, and it is vetted well among all of our groups. Thank you, Debbie, for your hard work and leadership over the last year.

This package in 2017 consisted of 28 bills. In the end, 26 of them were passed into law. This is a remarkable number. It is a result of countless hours of vetting and refining by the AAC staff and all associations we represent. I know of no other groups or associations that approach similar success rates with such a large number of proactive pieces of legislation.

To the AAC Legislative Committee and the AAC Board of Directors, you are to be congratulated. Your efforts and full shoulder of support are ultimately the reason these bills go through. Your ideas are the genesis of these pieces of legislation. Who knows better what county government needs than those of you who work every day in the trenches?

But to stop with our legislative package and grade efforts there would be shortsighted. The measure of our success is only partially rested on those 26 bills. It is ultimately the remaining 475+ bills filed and tracked — and which are part of our collective efforts — that decide whether a session gets a thumbs up or down.

Though early, it is safe to say that the 2017 regular session will score a thumbs-up for the counties of Arkansas. Many of the bills we had to fight on behalf of the counties were either defeated or modified to our satisfaction, and many of you made the phone calls, texts or emails necessary to raise legislative awareness to these county issues.

As has been the case for the past four sessions, it all started here with Eddie Jones. Eddie is superb at details, and his review of bills helped to alert us to potential problems or opportunities. In addition, Mark Whitmore with the judges, sheriffs and coroners; Lindsey Bailey with the county clerks, justices of the peace and assessors; Josh Curtis with the circuit clerks and collectors; and Eddie with the treasurers were all amazingly effective with our members and constantly communicated with statewide leadership. And to top all this off we have a crackerjack communications team with Director Christy L. Smith and newly hired Communications Coordinator Holland Doran.

I cannot brag enough on your AAC staff. At the close of each session I take stock of the fact that our group is at the top in effectiveness and capability at the state Capitol, and I want to take column space here to thank them for ALL of the great work they do. You guys are indeed the best team of advocators I have ever seen assembled, and you truly care about county government and its success. Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to walk with you into the legislative battles up the hill.

While the work this staff performs is incredible, it is nothing without your help. The county and district officials of this state provide a powerful, formidable voice. Often lost in policy discussion at the Capitol is the implementation and potential pitfalls in your offices. You all are so very capable in this area, and the practical, hands-on knowledge and experience that you bring is immeasurably important.

The ability to communicate this impact is not developed overnight, and if your first call to a legislator is during a session, let me encourage you to reflect on the relationships you and your county officials have with your legislators. Now is the time for them to return home, and to go alongside you to pie auctions and speaking engagements across your county. This is the time for you to build these relationships … invite your senator or representative into the courthouse, teach them the details of your job and ask that they return to Little Rock with your interests in mind — and your cell phone number firmly set on their speed-dial.

The progress we all make as counties isn’t begun during a session. It is instead developed person-to-person, county-by-county as you take advantage of the local opportunities presented to you. As you learn of the impacts the bills that were passed into acts will have on you and your office, reach out to those legislators who voted for them and thank them for their help.

We will all go to member association conferences over the next two months, and AAC staff will detail the bills of interest to our counties. Our handout (which you should have already received by mail) on the Index of County Government Acts is incredibly important. Please take time to look at these acts ahead of time and come to these meetings with any questions you might have.

As I think back on the success of this and previous legislative sessions, I am reminded of a quote by Henry Ford: “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” For the counties of Arkansas and the AAC, as 75 counties with one strong voice at the Capitol, this statement rings so true of our efforts legislatively, and I want to thank all of you, members and staff alike, for your work fulfilling the vision of Henry Ford’s quote.

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