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Death to the Fiscal (Hunter Field Editor’s Note)

Hunter Field Editor's Note
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Every other year, Arkansas’ state legislators file into Little Rock for a month of mostly twiddling their thumbs.

You know this as the fiscal session.

Held in even-numbered years, these sessions are, typically, focused solely on budget bills. That means the Joint Budget Committee does most of the work, and the rest of the General Assembly rubber-stamps what the committee and the governor’s office have put forward, save a few proxy fights over the years, usually over Medicaid expansion. But that ship has sailed.

This year’s session, which was wrapping up last week, has been a little unusual because the Legislature has also had to clean up the mess it made last year when it passed a law to protect crypto mines at the expense of their neighbors’ sanity.

Aside from the few lawmakers who put in a fair amount of work on the budget, most members show up, cast a few votes and saunter off to lunch or an early dinner.

Of course, John Q. Taxpayer foots the session’s bill, which isn’t cheap, costing close to $1 million.

This waste began after 2008 when voters approved Amendment 86 to the Arkansas Constitution — a ballot initiative with misleading language offered up by the General Assembly. Before that, Arkansas operated on a biennial budget cycle just fine, and the governor could call special sessions if needed.

One of the lead sponsors of the constitutional amendment has since expressed regret, acknowledging the fiscal session has not helped the state.

I’d submit it has hurt us and encouraged lawmakers and bureaucrats to spend more money. A 2019 study found that the fiscal session has had no meaningful impact on revenue forecasting or the frequency of special sessions. What it has done is increase the amount of supplemental appropriations.

Another detriment of the fiscal session is its role in the General Assembly’s continued shift away from being a part-time legislature — a wise feature woven into our state’s fabric by the founding fathers.

There have been some efforts to abolish the fiscal session, but they’ve never gained enough traction in the Legislature. No surprise. That same 2019 study surveyed lawmakers, and most said they liked getting together in even-numbered years. I don’t blame them; the pay isn’t bad for part-time work. Each lawmaker is paid $44,356 per year in addition to tens of thousands of dollars in mileage and per diem. That’s well over Arkansas’ median wage ($39,062).

The fiscal should meet the same fate as the General Improvement Fund — a legislative pork program ended in 2017 after a massive legislative corruption scandal.

That would leave us with two options: holding regular legislative sessions every year or going back to sessions in odd-numbered years and biennial budget cycles.

Evidence shows the former would mean more spending, more new laws and a further shift toward a full-time legislature.

We’ve got enough laws, and the founders had it right.

Email Hunter Field, editor of Arkansas Business at hfield@abpg.com
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