Arkansas House Considering Options for Speaker's Race Tie

LITTLE ROCK — After a campaign season that focused on which party would win Arkansas' House, Democrats and Republicans in that chamber now face a new question: What happens if neither side is in control?

Republicans claimed a majority in the state House last week for the first time since Reconstruction, winning 51 of the 100 seats in Tuesday's election. But a recount in a northeast Arkansas House race could deny the GOP an outright majority.

Legislative leaders are preparing for the scenario as the Thursday vote nears on whether to oust Democrat Rep. Darrin Williams as next year's speaker. If Williams can't muster 51 votes, he loses the position and there will be a vote for a new speaker — a vote that could end in a tie.

"If it's a tie, there's a lot of interesting questions still pending out there," said current House Speaker Robert Moore, who is term-limited and won't return to the Legislature next year.

Republicans won a 51-48 margin over Democrats in the House, with the Green Party holding one seat. The GOP was given a decisive 21-14 margin in the Senate.

There are no House rules about what happens if no party can claim a majority when electing a speaker. Rep. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, is expected to be the only Republican vying for the position.

The results of the recount for the House District 52 race between Democrat L.J. Bryant and Republican John K. Hutchison may be unknown until Thursday. Bryant requested a recount after losing to Hutchison by 44 votes.

House Republican Leader Bruce Westerman said the initial solution is to keep voting until someone wins, but said the House may need to reconvene if it can't break a stalemate.

"If we don't have a majority and there's an unbreakable tie, you've got to look at every possible alternative," Westerman said.

Legislative leaders say they'll look at how other states have handled a split House or Senate — and experts say there are plenty of examples.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says that tied chambers are becoming more frequent, with every even-year election since 1984 producing at least one deadlocked legislative chamber. Most ties have been settled by parties negotiating a shared power agreement, an idea that Moore floated when talking with reporters last week.

Williams, who would be the state's first black speaker if confirmed Thursday, also said a co-speakership could be the way to handle it. Under that model, the House leaders would alternate presiding over the chamber.

"I would just assume we would have to work out some type of shared leadership structure if no candidate got a majority of the votes," Williams said.

That'd be a new wrinkle in a potentially heated legislative session where no party in either chamber has the 3/4th supermajority needed to pass most budget bills, including legislation to allow the state to expand Medicaid under the federal health care law.

As for a split House, lawmakers could look to former Arizona state Sen. Randall Gnant for advice. Gnant, who now lives in the northwest Arkansas city of Bella Vista, served as that chamber's president after the 2000 election produced a 15-15 split. The Republican said he evenly divided the state Senate's committee chairmanships between Democrats and Republicans.

In Arkansas, the speaker selects committee chairmen but committee assignments are divvied up by seniority.

"They might have an opportunity that comes once every couple generations to demonstrate that both parties can work together to get good stuff done," Gnant said.

The unknown vote in a split House would be Fred Smith, the former Democratic lawmaker who resigned after a felony conviction and is now returning to the chamber as its sole Green Party member. A judge later dismissed the theft case, but Smith was blocked from running in the Democratic primary for his old seat because he had a conviction at the time he filed.

Smith said he's undecided, but indicated hard feelings remain against his former party, who blocked him from the primary because he had a conviction at the time he filed. A judge has dismissed the theft case.

"I forgive, but guess what? Sometimes we don't forget," Smith said

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