The Arkansas Legislature only officially adjourned the 90th General Assembly less than a month ago but all signs are pointing to a special session at the end of this month. The buzz is that after spending time on the lake during Memorial Day weekend, and liberating the contents of big-name American lagers, the state’s 135 legislators will assemble in Little Rock for what have been of late, three-day special sessions.
Nothing’s official at the time of print but it’s said to be about offering state finances to help capture a massive federal military contract; moving Arkansas’s presidential primary; re-organizing the state’s professional bureaucracy into 10 agencies; and re-scheduling the fiscal session to account for any shift in the presidential primary schedule.
If the session is limited to a short three days, as former Governor Mike Beebe prided himself on, it generally means that major hurdles have already been negotiated and vote counts have already been sufficiently tallied. It certainly adds pressure to get along and go along for the sake of meeting a deadline. Beebe often said it’s about saving tax payer dollars and stopping lawmakers from trying to legislate too much.
It’s not a bad thing that legislative leadership is continuously working hard in the “off season” to do what in their eyes will better the state. But it certainly limits the public opportunity to participate in the discourse in real-time, or something nearer to it, when the legislative process is limited to an extended weekend.
A multi-billion dollar military contract to manufacture the next generation of Humvee-like vehicles, with Camden in southeast Arkansas as a possible location, is nothing to delay about. But it’s nothing that should be rushed either. It’s bound to involve tens of millions of dollars in concessions from state coffers in terms of incentives, tax breaks, worker training programs, and infrastructure. All which could or could not be a worthy trade in return for jobs.
And yes, there will be some lawmakers in the General Assembly who will decry state incentives as corporate welfare. Maybe one or two will reject furthering the military-industrial complex. It’s doubtful there will be much of a grumble from those that often bellow about federal spending in other parts of the country, or in other sectors such as healthcare. But finer points, zeroing in on the degree of incentives could be where the action is at in the legislative process.
Aside from the federally funded, military-based economic development issue are those other possibilities: agency re-structuring, primary schedules and a few more. It’ll be difficult for genuine public participation and for the skeleton crew of Capitol reporters in Arkansas to get the ins-and-outs of every step in such a packed time. On other hand, it’s more straightforward than the whirlwind of 2,000 plus bill regular sessions. Details could always emerge a few weeks in advance, in-time for some public vetting.
Camden or bust? We’ll see in late May what Arkansas is prepared to hand over in order to bring in federally-funded jobs. If it works it’ll mean more than just a new day for Camden. It could mean a new quarter-century or more.
Jacob Kauffman has reported on the state legislature since 2013 and primarily covers Arkansas politics for KUAR Public Radio in Little Rock. His work has appeared on NPR, PBS News Hour, as well as a variety of state publications. He is also a regular panelist on AETN’s Arkansas Week and writes an exclusive weekly column for The Nashville News.