Don’t let upcoming legislative session have an asterisk
By Chris Villines
AAC Executive Director
As this issue of County Lines hits the mailbox, fall is quickly turning the corner into winter. And as is the case in even-numbered years, preparation is being made for our biennial legislative session. The 93rd General Assembly will be like everything else in our world right now, rapidly paced and flexible, which means more than ever that you as county officials will need to be engaged.
I’ve thought a great deal about how 2020 will be viewed years down the road. As a sports fan I like statistics and lists. Etched forever in our sports lists will be a darned asterisk beside anything that happened in 2020. National Champions, batting averages, total yards gained in the season … all will have an asterisk because of the unusual nature of this year.
Your county budgets will have an asterisk for a few reasons: COVID-19 expenses, CARES ACT reimbursements, possibly a dip in revenue — all marks in your county budget for 2020. Now I encourage you to turn your eyes to the 93rd General Assembly to prevent another asterisk in a long list of successful sessions — we have to concern ourselves with laws that could be passed with negative unintended consequences for county government. If ever there was a year it could happen, it would be in the upcoming session.
As is always the case, you are the key to a session. While the Association of Arkansas Counties may organize and inform of potential legislative items, county officials are the true workers as you educate your elected legislators to how county government works. To deepen the ties between local and state government, many counties have begun hosting informal sessions, meet and greets if you will, with their local delegation by inviting them to a courthouse and discussing their issues. We believe this is an effective and valuable way to grow these relationships and keep the lines of communication open. Despite the pandemic, we hope that you can find ways to safely have these gatherings — even if by Zoom — to get to know one another and your respective jobs a little bit better.
As the session begins, legislators will turn not just to us at the association, but to you at home to find out how a bill could potentially impact you and your office. If your legislator doesn’t have you stored in their contacts list the delay in finding you could be just the thing that lets legislation with negative unintended consequences find its way to Gov. Hutchinson’s desk.
Usually over 2000 bills are filed, more than 500 of which will have some level of impact on county government. Your team at the AAC does its best to walk through each bill (thank you Eddie Jones, our first-reader on these bills) and communicate to you what we see as the impacts both good and bad to county government. But sometimes even we do not capture everything, so we encourage you to watch daily to see what bills are filed and communicate amongst each other through your respective listservs. And then, most importantly, make sure that each association has a coordinated effort to come to the capitol and testify on these bills as they wind through committees. We are here to help you know when and where committees will be meeting and your liaisons with the AAC stand at the ready to keep you in the loop.
There are important dates and items associated with any legislative session, and I’d like to walk through some of those as follows:
First of all, every county official should familiarize themselves with the legislative website. All bills and tracks of these bills can be found at https://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/. Please bookmark this page.
Nov. 16, 2020 – legislators began pre-filing bills for the legislative session. We expect an increase in pre-filing of bills for the 2021 session because of the unknowns that COVID-19 presents. Already some bills have been filed that will have an impact on county government.
Jan. 11, 2021 – the legislative session officially begins, usually with the Governor delivering the state of the state to both chambers in the house — likely this will be online this year.
Jan. 25, 2021 – the deadline to file retirement legislation (can be extended with a supermajority suspension of this rule).
Feb. 10, 2021 – the deadline to file constitutional amendments to be considered by the legislature.
March 1, 2021 – the deadline to file appropriation bills.
Historically our sessions have run in excess of 60 days, but like everything else, this may be the year with an asterisk. It is conceivable that the outbreak worsens during the session and everything is expedited, making the attention we all pay to the session even more critical. So again, my broken record encourages you to watch closely.
Your team here at the AAC will be in constant contact with you all, and I cannot express enough how much I appreciate the hard work that Mark Whitmore, Lindsey French, Josh Curtis, Eddie Jones, Christy L. Smith, Holland Doran, Anne Baker and Deann Campbell will be putting forth on behalf of counties. They are all singularly focused during a session and stand ready to assist whenever and wherever needed.
A quote attributed to Mark Twain goes as this, “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.” While this is obviously meant tongue in cheek, with a fast-moving legislative session we all know that mistakes can be made. Mistakes that harm your constituents by giving them less effective county government. Mistakes that will come to haunt the system and put an asterisk by this legislative session. Don’t let that happen. Have good relationships with your legislators and communicate often when you see potential harm to our local governance. We have a very good system, changes made through the years have been thoughtful and carefully considered.
Nobody knows county government better than you. You are the experts and your voices carry a great deal of weight at the capitol. Good luck to all of us as we fight to end a pandemic and to keep county government pointed in the right direction.