The 2021 legislative session won’t be the “greatest of all time,” or “GOAT,” as Gov. Asa Hutchinson described the one in 2019. But it will be one of the weirdest, and probably one of the briefest – or maybe the longest.
Hutchinson called the the 2019 session the “greatest” because its accomplishments included income tax reduction, reorganizing state government, teacher pay raises and a highway plan. The highway plan included a constitutional amendment featuring a permanent half-cent sales tax for highways. Voters passed that amendment this month.
The governor’s assertion is debatable, but the session nevertheless was consequential. This one probably will be much less so as legislators meet during this weird time.
So far, at least 17 legislators have been struck by COVID-19, and that’s before they’ve met in a regular session in the dead of winter in a crammed Capitol.
No one knows what the status of the pandemic will be when the Legislature convenes Jan. 11, but it won’t be over. Vaccines are coming, but they’re not here yet.
The Legislature is taking steps to minimize the risk of transmission. Plexiglass dividers have been installed in the House and Senate chambers and in the largest committee room. Steps will be taken to limit crowds. Committees will announce what bills will be heard in advance so lobbyists and members of the public don’t pack into a room just in case their bill is heard that day.
Ultimately, any strategy for containing the virus will include reducing the number of times legislators meet and the length of the session itself. There will be fewer committee meetings and fewer opportunities for legislators to lead their colleagues down a rabbit hole – and less patience with those who might try.
The circumstances will reduce the opportunity for major transformative changes. If legislators meet less, they’ll focus on the things they have to do rather than what they might want to do.
Moreover, there will be less participation by lobbyists and big players. That half-cent sales tax for highways occurred after many of the state’s leading business groups coalesced behind the proposal prior to the 2019 session. They presented polling to lawmakers showing the proposal would pass before the lawmakers voted to refer it to the ballot. Their sustained, united front made it politically easier for lawmakers to take that step.
This time, these major players will be at the Capitol less frequently, and when they are, they’ll be wearing masks and trying to keep their distance, at least until they’ve got something important to say.
This could be one of the briefest sessions in memory, as legislators just try to get it done and go home without getting sick. That’s what happened when they met in fiscal session and a special session earlier this year.
Unless, as one lobbyist told me, legislators have to recess during the session because of an outbreak. If that’s the case, this thing could stretch until June, at which point the pandemic hopefully will be over.
The pandemic will reduce the impact of this session in other ways. The governor has been focused on the coronavirus rather than his legislative package. He’s also expended some political capital. He’s closed and restricted businesses and issued a mask mandate this year, so there will be pushback from some legislators if, for example, he tries hard to pass a hate crimes bill.
Even without the pandemic, this session likely wouldn’t have been the greatest of all time. The last session was so consequential that there would be no way to regain that momentum, and there wouldn’t be enough people interested in trying. It’s also the governor’s last before he’s term-limited, and attention is already turning toward the race to be his successor.
Finally, there’s been a leadership change in the Senate, as well as some factional divisions. The Senate president pro tempore will no longer be the governor’s staunch ally and nephew, Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette. Instead, it will be Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, who will assert more Senate independence.
Put it all together, and this won’t be the GOAT. Instead it more likely will be the “GID” session – as in, “get it done.”
Which is fine because not every session can be the greatest, nor would we want them to be.