Saturday, November 15, 2008

EDITORIAL >>Yearly sessions a big mistake

The discussion about why Arkansas voters overwhelmingly ratified a constitutional amendment to expand legislative powers is mystifying. Members of the legislature who voted to put the proposition on the ballot are horrified that voters went along with the idea. They are talking about putting another amendment on the ballot in 2010 to repeal this one. The governor, who had never uttered a word about it in the 18 months since the legislature referred it, let it be known on election day that he opposed the amendment, and the next day said he was absolutely bewildered by its passage.
Only in Arkansas.

Proposed Amendment 2 requires the legislature to meet in regular session every January rather than every other year. Every spending bill from now on will cover only one year rather than two, which means that the legislature will meet again the next year to pass a whole new set of budgets.

It is a big-government proposition if there ever was one. Lawmaking itself will become much more expensive, requiring more per-diem payments, a nearly full-time legislative staff, higher legislative salaries (you can be sure) and an end to the frugal budgeting that the current system mandates. The two-year budget cycles regularly produce surpluses, which are used to meet the state’s capital needs.

Legislators who went along with offering the proposal — by two Republican lawmakers from Northwest Arkansas — did it because they never believed voters would really approve it, if you can believe their protestations after the election. The proposal got nearly 70 percent of the vote. Every proposition on the ballot passed handily.

The two sponsors said their idea was to give the legislature a great deal more power in the government so that legislators could be a check on the governor. It is a strange premise because the Arkansas governor is already one of the constitutionally weakest chief executives in the 50 states. How legislators hanging around the Capitol more would rein in a ruthless governor is not clear.

Arkansas is one of the states — all relatively small and rural — that still have a truly citizen legislature as Thomas Jefferson envisioned it. Men and women put down the plow or the pen to go to the Capitol for a while every two years to make laws and determine how the people’s taxes are spent. In the winter and spring of odd-numbered years legislators adopt a spending plan for every government program for each of the next two years.

It has been an amazingly efficient and economical system. When Governors Dale Bumpers and David Pryor went to Washington to serve in the Senate, both ruminated about how much better the federal government would function if it adopted the two-year budgeting system and Arkansas’ revenue stabilization law, which requires agencies every year to adjust their spending downward when tax collections slow. Deficit spending cannot happen.

Annual legislative sessions will change the character of the people who run for the legislature. People will not run if their careers and economic situation will not permit them to spend so much time at Little Rock and away from their work. Term limits reduced the field of candidates for legislative office, and this will magnify the effect.

But it is a full-employment program for lobbyists, whose services will be needed twice as much. Agency heads and fiscal officers will have to spend twice the time preparing and lobbying their budgets.

Why did conservative voters approve such an expensive proposition? Perhaps it was because the amendment began by saying that it would prohibit appropriations for more than one year. That sounds frugal, although it is the opposite.

Several legislators were talking about offering another amendment next year to repeal or repair this one and this time making sure the public understood what was at stake. We think they should. The legislature must still meet in January 2010, before the next election, to appropriate for the 2010-11 fiscal year, but one year of waste is better than a lifetime.