The Arkansas Legislature will return to session in January but, like nearly every other part of American life, it won’t quite be a return to normalcy.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which is still rolling through the state’s population, will make the glad-handing, back-slapping world of Arkansas politics adjust the way its business is done. Lobbyists, whose jobs depend on their ability to get up close and personal with state legislators, are already preparing for a new working environment determined by safety protocols.
“I’m a big believer that nothing is unique,” said John Burris, a partner with Capitol Advisors Group in Little Rock and a former three-term state representative. “While this may be unique in a way, there have been challenging times before. People used to have to ride on a horse and carriage to the old statehouse and operate without the internet. They’ll figure it out.
“We all know this process has to happen. The legislators are smart and they know they have a job to do. It’ll be an adjustment but the process will move on.”
Capitol Advisors Group is ranked No. 2, behind Impact Management Group of Little Rock, on Arkansas Business’ first-ever list of the state’s largest lobbyist firms, ranked by number of clients reported to the Secretary of State.
Lobbyists who spoke with Arkansas Business said they didn’t know what specific restrictions the pandemic would impose on the general session. Budget hearings were stopped in October after seven legislators tested positive for the coronavirus.
The leadership said that social distancing would be enforced, and a mask-unless-speaking rule was already in place. Meetings have been closed to the public since the pandemic began in earnest in March.
“Once March came around and they began pulling back and shutting down and committee meetings became virtual, the direct person-to-person contact between lobbyists and legislators really came to a halt for a period of time,” said Justin Allen of Wright Lindsey & Jennings in Little Rock, No. 4 on the lobbyist firm list. “We — me and other lobbyists — began covering committee meetings virtually. We have been going to committee meetings from time to time, but when you do go it is pretty empty in there.”
The Arkansas House of Representatives has livestreamed its committee hearings for some time, but its Senate counterparts only began in 2019, said John Reed, the Senate’s information officer.
“Thank goodness we began livestreaming in the 2019 session, and that included committee rooms,” Reed said. “I have heard the senators say that the challenge is to keep the democratic system’s participation as close to a democracy as we have ever had.”
Reed said social distancing, mask wearing and closed sessions will affect the way he does his job, too. Normally, Reed said he had “wandered” in and out of committee hearings but now he will watch hearings from the isolation of his office.
The state has contracted with a local company to wire the committee hearing rooms and connect them with each. Many representatives and senators sit on multiple committees, and the connectivity will allow members to keep track of what is going on in different hearings.
That goes for lobbyists, too, who need to know what is being discussed, who is discussing it and who is in or out of the room. The pandemic will limit the ability of lobbyists to sit physically in a hearing or sit outside to catch a legislative member popping out of the room.
“We bought some smart TVs; it sounds silly but we have TVs set up so we can watch multiple hearings at once and not do it from a phone or a computer,” Burris said. “There is nothing like being in the room. So much of the legislative session is being in the room. You can’t see who is in the room typically because of livestreaming and the way the cameras work.
“You can’t see facial reactions to questions or who is whispering to whom, all those things that sound dramatic but they really do [matter].”
Reed said some not-so-new technology will show its importance, as well. “Even before this year texting has become more and more [prevalent], and this is just going to accelerate that,” Reed said. “That helps the established lobbyist who already has a relationship with the member; they just maintain the contacts they cultivated years back.”
Jon Gilmore said he believes all legislators and lobbyists alike would agree that safety is the No. 1 priority with the coming session.
The tricky balance is that public access, whether through the general public or a professional lobbyist, is also an important and constitutional factor.
“I do think there is a concern with trying to have a remote legislative session [about] making sure the general public of Arkansas has access to allow their viewpoints to be heard,” said Gilmore, a former deputy chief of staff for Gov. Asa Hutchinson. His Gilmore Strategy Group is No. 3 on the list of lobbyist firms ranked by number of clients.
“Safety is the No. 1 concern, so how do you have a legislative session that incorporates safety being No. 1 and access being No. 2? I think Speaker [Matthew] Shepherd and the leadership of the Senate care about that, too.”
Lobbyists said they have heard that legislative leaders are telling members to be ready to run a bill if they propose it. There is the general belief that fewer superfluous bills will be submitted, which lobbyists said could result in a more efficient session.
“There is going to be a lot less riffraff,” Burris said. “There are always members filing bills to make a point or ones they know don’t have the traction. A lot of times committees can get bogged down with those types of bills. There is going to be a lot more focus on what is important. Of course, the flip side is, who gets to decide what is important?
“There is definitely going to be an attempt to streamline the process by leadership, but the give and take is making sure every idea or proposal gets some type of vetting. That is what the legislative process is.”
Allen expects a lot less schmoozing between the groups — fundraising events have been canceled or shortened considerably. Lobbyists are doing a lot more prep work with legislators on expected issues.
“One of my comments to them was ‘Please be patient with us as we text you more than we even do now and we call you even more than we do now,’” Allen said. “We’re not going to be able to hang out outside of Insurance & Commerce or Public Health [committees] and wait for them to come in and out. That’s probably not the smartest thing to be done.”
Gilmore said the new environment will make old-fashioned values even more valuable.
“Now it is going to be different because you’re probably going to rely on calling individuals and maybe doing it remotely, and that is where integrity and trust come into play, how the members know you and think about you,” Gilmore said. “They can’t sit there and look you in the eye. In this business, all you have is your reputation, and that is where your reputation as a lobbyist is going to come into play in a big way.”