Friday, November 13, 2015

TOP STORY >> Constituents’ views sought

Leader staff writer

Arkansas legislators told a group of Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce members Thursday that they wanted to hear from constituents and hear from them early.

State Rep. Bob Johnson (D- Jacksonville) also introduced Tabitha Jackson at the Lunch and Learn event at the Esther Dewitt Nixon Library. She does constituent services for the House of Representatives.

Johnson, who is running for re-election against Republican opponent Patrick Thomas, was joined by state Sen. David Johnson (D-Little Rock).

David Johnson is seeking to be judge over the Jacksonville and Maumelle district courts. His opponent, Cammack Village-Wrightsville District Court Judge Rita Bailey, also came to the lunch.

The two courts will soon share a judge and have countywide jurisdiction because of a 2011 law aimed at lightening the caseload of circuit courts across Arkansas. All of Pulaski County will vote on the judge in spring 2016.

State Rep. Douglas House (R-North Little Rock), who is unopposed for re-election, also spoke at the get-together.

Former state Rep. Mark Perry, Jacksonville-North Pulaski School Superintendent Tony Wood and chamber board president Roger Sundermeier were there, too.

Bob Johnson kicked things off. “I talked to the chamber not long after our session started, and I said, ‘You know, I would like to talk to the businesses (about) how do you get to us during the session or out of session, with your concerns, that gets our attention,’” he said.

Bob Johnson explained how legislators receive between 200 and 400 emails every day when they’re in session, and many are duplicates.

“What I want to know, that I want to hear from my constituents, is what bothers them, what they need, what they see. I want to understand why they’re for or against something,” the representative continued.

He said one way to reach him is through constituent services, which is “not politics at all.”

David Johnson agreed, adding that legislators are part-time employees and need help from that full-time staff. He noted that the filing deadline — the first Monday in March — is when hundreds of bills are submitted and things get hectic at the Capitol.

Bob Johnson said Jackson and her co-workers write letters, call people and more. If constituents call them, that staff will put them through to his cell phone, he explained.

Jackson said they all have a different job description when the legislature is having a session. As a general clerk, she said she documents the official record, votes, amendments, etc.

Bob Johnson also emphasized that those concerned about a bill should contact him while it’s in committee because that is where changes are made. Those are open meetings too, he noted.

David Johnson added that, often, committee chairs will ask for input from those who are there and aren’t lawmakers.

Once bills are on the House floor, Bob Johnson said, “They’ve already been kind of vetted, and everybody’s kind of on board with them, and most of them pass when they come out of committee.”

He also encouraged the audience to speak with both their senator and representative before a bill comes to any floor, adding that he really wants to hear from small businesses that are the “backbone” of the state and country.

House agreed that “if you’ve got something that’s really important, yeah, we need to know about it well in advance so we can go ahead and massage it.”
He explained how, for the bill he ushered through last session, he spoke to nearly every House member and three-fourths of the Senate about it — a process that takes time.

Bob Johnson gave one example of hearing from a constituent. He said he’d been asked to look at how Arkansas is the only state around taxing sales of bulk gold. An interim study is now being done to see how much revenue is generated from taxes on bulk gold sales.

The representative noted, too, that every bill has unintended consequences, and it takes time to find those out. The Bureau of Legislative Research helps with that, he said.

He and House also brought up that a bill to stop taxing military retiree benefits died in committee but would come back next session.

Amy Mattison with the chamber said she testified on that topic because she’s married to a 40-something-year-old who has retired from service to his country.

She noted that many lawmakers incorrectly assume retirees are in their 60s and late 50s. Mattison added that Iowa has launched a huge campaign to attract military retirees based on them not taxing benefits and losing military retirees can also mean losing the skill sets of their spouses.

House said, though he supported not taxing military retiree benefits, the argument against it was that other retirees — first responders, teachers, civil service people and more —would want the same treatment. He confirmed that the cost of not taxing military retiree benefits would have been $14 million.

House argued that the difference is many retiring from the military still have skill sets to bring to the workforce when the others don’t.

Another suggestion Bob Johnson had was to make clear when you live in the district of the legislator you are trying to contact.

But David Johnson disagreed with that making a difference, saying he is an officer of the whole state as well. But the senator admitted that late in the session he begins to prioritize those who live in the district he represents.

House said he would take the time necessary to explain to a constituent why he voted a certain way, but would not necessarily do the same for someone outside the area he represents.

Mattison asked when the Senate would catch up with the House in live streaming meetings.

David Johnson said an argument against is that live streaming would prompt grandstanding.

Bob Johnson added that the House has many more rules than the Senate because it is a larger body. Representatives can’t grandstand, he noted.

Bob Johnson also touted at the lunch a new caucus addressing issues for north-of-the-river communities and that Mattison had helped form a Central Arkansas Alliance for chambers of commerce.

House also mentioned briefly at the end, in response to a question about how legislators find out what the unintended consequences of a new bill are, that he caused confusion over open-carry gun laws in Arkansas by adding the word “unlawfully” into a bill.

He said, although the intention was not to allow open carry, it has been interpreted that way, and there had been no move to change the law.

Bob Johnson said, most of the time, lawmakers learn of unintended consequences from the groups affected.