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Analysis: Veto puts focus on special language
Question of the Day
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Gov. Mike Beebe’s veto of a tax exemption for natural gas drillers puts a new spin on an old problem for the Legislature. Lawmakers no longer just have to wonder whether special language they’re adding to a budget bill amounts to a major policy change.
Now they have to question whether they’re turning fiscal sessions into full-fledged regular sessions.
Lawmakers last week easily overrode Beebe’s line-item veto of a measure exempting from state sales taxes sand used in natural gas drilling, despite the governor’s warnings that the tax break was unconstitutional and threatened pay raises for state employees. The exemption was included in the budget bill for the Department of Finance and Administration’s revenue services division.
Beebe called that approach unconstitutional, saying it violated the amendment voters approved in 2008 setting up annual sessions - with regular sessions in odd-numbered years and slimmed-down fiscal sessions in even-numbered years. It takes a two-thirds vote to take up non-budget measures during a fiscal session.
“Substantive changes to Arkansas law that have no relation to appropriations, such as Section 16 of HB 1048, should rarely be considered during fiscal sessions,” Beebe wrote in his veto letter. “If they are to be considered at all, it should be done through the process the people established in our Constitution, and not through ‘special language’ amendments to unrelated appropriation bills.”
Complaints about the special language process, where special instructions are tacked onto budget bills, are nothing new for the Legislature. But the panel’s role in shaping policy through the appropriations process is now getting a new look as the Legislature adjusts to annual sessions.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of pressure in these fiscal sessions to grow that into a full-fledged session,” said Jay Barth, political science professor at Hendrix College in Conway. “There’s going to be battles in the coming years over whether the fiscal session becomes constrained to only budget items, and I think this does represent one of those early scuffles.”
After wrapping a session that lasted nearly two weeks longer than the other two fiscal sessions, lawmakers share that worry about expanding the scope of what were supposed to be limited gatherings focused on the budget.
Backers of the exemption said they believe putting the measure in the budget bill was an appropriate way to clarify the law after a judge ruled this month that the sand shouldn’t be taxed. Supporters of the exemption said it was never the Legislature’s intention to tax that material.
“It’s appropriate for us to provide legislative intent on the original law and let DFA know that they are operating outside of the authority the legislature provided them with,” said Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, who proposed the tax exemption measure.
But Dismang, who also co-chairs the special language panel of the Joint Budget Committee, said that legislators will spend the interim looking at how special language is handled, particularly during the fiscal sessions. Dismang said lawmakers need to define the intent of that panel.
“I think it’s something that membership on both sides of the building are going to have to define,” said Dismang, who will be Senate president next year. “What parameters do we want special language to operate in?”
For some lawmakers, that question could be as easily applied to the fiscal session itself, not just the special language process.
“We need to take a total look at why we have a fiscal session,” Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said after the vote. “Had I known it was going to turn out this way, I never would have voted for it.”
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