LITTLE ROCK - On the first day of the 2013 regular session of the legislature, the chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court is scheduled to administer the oath of office to 15 freshmen senators and 20 returning senators.
Of the 35-member Senate, 26 have previous legislative experience as members of the House of Representative.
The state Constitution mandates that regular sessions last a minimum of 60 days, and if necessary they can be extended by a vote of the legislature. Over the past couple of decades sessions have lasted around 80 to 90 days. The previous two regular sessions lasted until mid-April.
The Senate Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor is scheduled to hit the ground running. In an indication that the committee intends to get off to a quick start, the chairman has scheduled a meeting on the first day of the session.
In the early days of the session the majority of activity will take place in committees, where proposed bills are discussed and the public is given an opportunity to comment on them. Almost every bill of substance is amended to contributions of the various interests it affects. Those amendments are typically presented, discussed and adopted in committee. Usually by the time a bill has been given a "do pass" recommendation by the committee and sent to the entire Senate for a vote, it has been amended to satisfy the concerns of everyone it affects.
A casual observer sitting in the Senate gallery could easily leave with the impression that senators do not thoroughly debate bills of importance.
That is because political differences of opinion are most often ironed out in committee, where amendments to bills reflect the compromises that opposing factions have agreed to.
As ordered in the Constitution, the 2011 session began on the second Monday of the year, which was January 10, 2011. During the regular session 1,004 bills were introduced in the Senate and 1,231 were introduced in the House. Of those, 1,242 became law.
The final act was signed by the governor on April 14, 2011. The legislature went into a two-week recess to allow staff sufficient time to review all legislation for typographical errors. The regular session officially ended on April 27 when a small group of lawmakers came back from the two-week recess and adjourned sine die. After the legislature adjourned sine die, it cannot reconvene until the next regular or fiscal session, or unless the governor calls a special session.
The most important and time-consuming duty of the legislature is to approve budgets for all agencies of state government. That means setting priorities for spending about $4.8 billion in the state general revenue fund. The bulk of that revenue comes from state sales taxes, and individual and corporate income taxes.
In total, the legislature will appropriate almost $20 billion. In addition to the $4.8 billion in the general revenue fund, the state also gets matching funds from the federal government. Also, the state collects special revenues for specific purposes, such as motor fuels taxes that drivers pay at the gas pump and that are spent to maintain highway and bridges.
Another source of revenue are "cash funds" generated by specific fees collected from specific categories of people, such as licensing fees paid by architects, engineers, attorneys and other professionals.