Special Sessions Becoming RoutineFor State Legislatures

By David J. Hoff — September 17, 2003 6 min read
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As state legislators stage their annual back-to-school events this fall, the students they’re visiting have had something many of the lawmakers haven’t: a summer break.

More legislatures have been in special session this year than in recent years, continuing a trend that has been gathering steam for a decade. This year’s extra sessions are due mostly to the time needed to address states’ budget shortfalls, often in order to protect education aid. But the rise in the number of additional sessions is also part of what experts say is the growing workload of state lawmakers.

“All the problems are more complex, and more and more of them are being given to the states,” said Todd G. Shields, an associate professor of political science at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. “A lot of states are trying to do more of the work, but they don’t have the staffs to do it.”

This year in particular, the need for legislative overtime has been acute because of the mammoth budget shortfalls facing many states—crises that state leaders have been forced to deal with in chambers that are increasingly divided along partisan lines.

“We don’t focus on the real issues” during the regular session, Missouri state Sen. Bill Foster, a Republican, said in an interview during last week’s special session in Jefferson City. “We have the tendency to point fingers at each other.”

Unfinished Business

So far, 18 legislatures have held special sessions this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Denver-based group representing state lawmakers.

In the past month, the spate of special sessions continued, with lawmakers in four states taking action that will affect their schools.

  • In Missouri, the legislature met last week to debate Democratic Gov. Bob Holden’s proposal to eliminate tax loopholes and put the new money toward education. As of late last week, the legislature had not passed the bill.

  • In Connecticut, lawmakers last week authorized $750 million in construction bonds, $500 million of which will go for school projects. The school projects were needed to comply with a state court order to desegregate K-12 schools in and around Hartford.

  • Maine lawmakers met briefly to authorize a Nov. 4 ballot initiative to change the way the state distributes school money.

  • In Ohio, the legislature convened to revise the state’s program of testing and accountability—changes that were required in order for the state to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The lawmakers failed to pass the measure in their regular session earlier this year.

And more special sessions are in the works.

Alabama legislators are scheduled to meet to handle the fallout after voters defeated Republican Gov. Bob Riley’s plan to add new taxes to pay for education. It will be the legislature’s second such special session on the topic this year. (“Alabama Voters Reject Gov. Riley’s Tax Plan,” this issue.)

Elsewhere, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, has called lawmakers to Santa Fe to debate the forthcoming recommendations from a blue-ribbon panel on tax reform.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, has scheduled a Dec. 8 session for the legislature to respond to a 2002 state supreme court order to increase and equalize school spending. The special session will be the second one this year for Arkansas lawmakers.

In Texas, which has had three tumultuous special sessions on congressional redistricting this year, a panel of lawmakers and citizens is preparing for a yet another session to rewrite that state’s unpopular school financing system.

Overall, 16 of the states that have held special sessions so far did so to address budget or tax issues, according to the NCSL. The two exceptions are North Dakota, which met to address health-insurance issues of people with severe medical problems, and Texas.

In the Spotlight

Governors often call special sessions to put pressure on legislatures to get a specific law passed. With one subject to debate, the logic goes, lawmakers will remain focused on getting the job done.

“When we go into a special session on school finance,” said Texas state Rep. Ken Grusendorf, the Republican chairman of the House education committee, “it allows us to focus totally on that one issue.”

Sometimes, governors call the sessions to score political points, observers of state government say.

Gov. Holden, a Democrat, called last week’s session in Missouri to highlight his Republican opponents’ refusal to raise taxes and use the revenues to pay for schools. Mr. Holden had already vetoed the education budget twice during the legislature’s earlier special session. He signed the third bill at the start of the fiscal year only to avert a “constitutional crisis,” said Mary W. Still, Mr. Holden’s spokeswoman.

When he signed the budget, Mr. Holden said he believed the budget’s projected revenues would fall $340 million short of its spending. He has already put a freeze on $195 million of the state’s $4.5 billion K-12 budget to ward off that shortfall, Ms. Still said.

Missouri’s House and Senate, both with Republican majorities, earlier rejected the governor’s tax proposals because they believe they passed a balanced budget, said Mr. Foster, who is the chairman of the Senate education committee.

Lawmakers may be willing to look at the proposals again when the legislature writes the budget next year, he added.

While the Missouri debate was about education financing, political observers said it had more to do with political posturing.

Mr. Holden is up for re-election next year and faces a challenge from the presumptive GOP nominee, Secretary of State Matt Blunt, according to David J. Webber, an associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

With Republicans gradually gaining influence in the state, both parties have been actively courting voters, Mr. Webber said.

“It’s been a constant campaign since January,” he said. “People are in campaign mode all of the time.”

The experience is common across states.

Since the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election ended in a virtual tie, both parties have been reluctant to compromise, said David A. Schultz, a professor of political science at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn.

“When it gets so close like this, people get more competitive and are less willing to give ground,” he said. “Each side is looking for whatever advantage it can have.”

Term Limits, Too

In addition to the political acrimony and budget crises, term limits are contributing to the need for legislatures to put in extra time, experts said.

Sixteen states now cap the number of terms state legislators can serve. Most states restrict legislative members to eight years in each chamber, according to U.S. Term Limits, a Washington-based group that advocates such limits.

Now that states with term limits have lost experienced legislators with policy knowledge, novices are taking time to get up to speed.

“You don’t hit the ground running the way a 10-year veteran would,” said Mr. Shields, the University of Arkansas professor. In Arkansas, members of the House are limited to three two-year terms, and senators are kept to two four- year terms.

“We have a substantial number [of legislators] climbing that learning curve,” Mr. Shields said.

The combination of term limits and an increase in the number of state legislative responsibilities causes some analysts to wonder whether the long-held tradition in many states of part-time legislators is about to end. State officials just might have to admit that they can’t get their work finished in a flurry between January and April once a year, Mr. Schultz said.

And they may have to do something to improve their skills and the staff support they need to do their jobs, he added.

“They neither have the skills, nor the time, to get the job done,” Mr. Schultz said.

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