BY SENATOR LARRY TEAGUE –
LITTLE ROCK – There have been only four special sessions of the Arkansas legislature in the past 10 years, and the most recent one was more than five years ago.
The last time the governor called the legislature into recent extraordinary session was in April of 2008, when the legislature met for three days to enact a higher severance tax on natural gas production, with the revenue dedicated to repairing highways.
Before the 2008 session began, the governor already had negotiated an agreement with gas producers and they did not oppose the severance tax during the special session. The Senate approved the measure by a vote of 32-to-3 and the House by a vote of 82-to-17.
In April of 2006, then Governor Mike Huckabee called the legislature into special session to adopt an inflation clause for public school funding, in order to comply with Supreme Court orders to provide an adequate education as mandated by the state Constitution.
In that same special session the legislature enacted a ban on smoking in the work place, as well as banning smoking in bars and restaurants that serve people under the age of 21.
There were two special sessions of the 84th General Assembly in 2003. The first one was called immediately after the adjournment of the regular session. It was needed because so many budget bills had not been completed during the regular session, which was marked by fierce animosity over Governor Huckabee’s proposal to consolidate public schools with fewer than 1,500 students.
The legislature completed the first special session of 2003 after enacting an increase in tobacco taxes and a surcharge on income taxes, in order to maintain funding levels for Medicaid, schools, prisons and higher education.
The second special session of 2003, which began in December and lasted until February of 2004, focused on public school funding in response to a state Supreme Court ruling against the state in the long-running Lake View school funding lawsuit. The governor called the legislature into special session to address issues of equitable funding and adequate funding.
To address the issue of equity, the legislature provided additional funding to schools with high percentages of poor students and students with special needs. To make the Arkansas education system adequate, the legislature approved a 7/8 cent sales tax increase. That brought the state sales tax to 6 percent and added hundreds of millions of new dollars to the school funding formula.
The legislature enacted accountability measures that require school administrators to be more efficient and transparent. Also, the legislature approved tougher academic standards. After the special session adjourned, the state Supreme Court ruled that the state had complied with its constitutional obligations to adequately fund a public school system, and the state was released from court jurisdiction in the Lake View case.
The state was back in court, embroiled again in the Lake View case, after the 2005 regular session. The legislature had not increased per pupil funding and a group of 49 school districts successfully petitioned the state Supreme Court to reopen the case.
The 2006 special session was one of the consequences of that decision. Also, in the 2007 regular session, when the state had an enormous budget surplus, the legislature allocated $456 million to public school facilities. Later in 2007 the Supreme Court again released the state from its jurisdiction in the Lake View case.