The Arkansas House of Representatives meets Friday to begin organizing for the next legislative session, most likely the first at which a Republican majority will be seated. The GOP likely will hold 51 of the 100 seats.
Who will lead them? Likely Majority Leader Bruce Westerman, a Republican, has made it clear, both in the newspaper and in private meetings with current House leadership, that he wants to get the designation of Democrat Darrin Williams as the next House speaker overthrown tomorrow morning. Williams has said, diplomatically, that he will not stand in the way of majority sentiment.
It’s not that simple, first because there are no votes scheduled tomorrow. Some background:
First, the House announcement about tomorrow — written by the current leadership’s staff:
The Arkansas House of Representatives will welcome the members-elect of the 89th General Assembly Friday morning in the House Chamber. Although election results have not been certified, it appears currently there are 50 Republican and 48 Democrat members-elect. [Counting continues for one seat in Benton County, but that seat almost certainly will go to a Republican. Even a finding that the mostly complete existing Benton County vote count is terribly wrong would put a Republican-friendly independent in the seat]. One member-elect belongs to the Green Party. Provisional ballots are still waiting to be counted in one race.
… The Speaker will declare all House seats vacant at 9 am on November 9th. Members-elect will then choose their seat for the upcoming session. Seat selection will take place in order of seniority. The Speaker and Speaker-designate will oversee the drawing which will determine the seniority of members. For members who have served an equal amount of time, House Rules directs that seniority is determined by lots. The House will be broadcasting the proceedings live here on our website.
Here’s what House rules say about speaker elections, in the relevant part:
10.(a)(4) If it is determined that the Speaker-designate will not serve as a member of the House of Representatives of the next-following General Assembly due to death, resignation, failure to be a candidate for reelection in the party primary election, or failure to be reelected as a party candidate in the Primary Election, a vacancy in the position of Speaker-designate shall exist and be filled at the caucus of the entire House of Representatives-elect held on the Friday of the week designated for the biennial Institute of Legislative Procedure (House Legislative Orientation), and the Speaker of the House of Representatives shall be elected upon convening of the next regular session.
The above section doesn’t apply this year directly. Williams will be serving next year. But it does indicate a procedure for making a change by providing a roughly 30-day post-election period to make a change in the designee. This is to account for election challenges, recounts and the like. The orientation session mentioned in the rule will occur Dec. 7 this year.
Here’s what the state law says:
10-2-107. Election of Speaker of the House of Representatives in doubt — Procedure.
(a) If, after the biennial general election and prior to the convening of the regular session, a statement signed by fifty (50) or more members of the House of Representatives who will serve at the next-following regular session of the General Assembly is filed with the current Speaker of the House of Representatives stating that the members believe that the formal election of the new Speaker of the House of Representatives is in doubt, then the current Speaker of the House of Representatives shall call a one-day organizational meeting of all members and members-elect of the House of Representatives who will serve at the next regular session. This meeting shall be held for the single purpose of designating the Speaker of the House of Representatives for the next General Assembly.
(b) If the special organizational meeting of members of the House of Representatives is called, all members and members-elect of the House of Representatives who will serve at the next-following regular session of the General Assembly shall be entitled to receive per diem and mileage for attending the meeting.
The Republicans can currently muster a bare 50 because of Benton County counting problems, but that number also includes one race in Northeast Arkansas, District 52, where the vote remains in question because of provisional ballots. Even presuming they’ll shortly nail down their 51 seats, there’s a clear procedure in the law that applies to today’s circumstance. Repeat: THE LAW. It is that the 50 petition the current speaker, who’d then set a meeting date to resolve the issue.
Westerman, with John Burris backing him up, wants the speaker designate changed Friday. Speaker Robert Moore is ready to accept a petition that says there’s been a change in circumstance and to set a date to take the matter up, well in advance of next year’s session, certainly by the Dec. 7 organizational meeting. This would harm no one. It would not hamper Republican planning. It would merely delay the bestowing of a temporary title on one person. It also would ensure that the vote will be done by people elected to serve next year. Will Republicans be reasonable? Or will they raise a whiny ruckus, akin to Mike Huckabee’s first day as lieutenant governor, when his offices weren’t palatial enough to suit. We’ll see tomorrow. But a generous spirit has rarely been evident in Republican DNA.
I’m actually interested in seeing the process move along expeditiously. Inevitably, it will produce the Republican speaker. I’m interested in the new majority’s view on bipartisanship. Will Republican House Speaker Terry Rice demonstrate the generosity Democratic Speaker Moore demonstrated with a slightly bigger Democratic majority? Moore appointed five Republicans to important chairmanships — Davy Carter at Revenue and Taxation, Ed Garner at Joint Performance Review, Les Carnine at Retirement, Jonathan Barnett at Transportation and Stephanie Malone at Aging, Children and Youth — as well as several vice chairmanships. Or will a victor with a smaller margin take all the spoils?
UPDATE RE BENTON COUNTY: They are now counting paper ballots there and hope to finish the job this evening.
UPDATE II: The counting has been completed and Republican Sue Scott has, as expected, been declared winner of the House seat. That would give the Republicans 51, with the asterisk of the recount requested in District 52.