February/March 2016 Issue
The Bureau of Legislative Research takes a nonpartisan approach to helping legislators craft bills, while sometimes working with lawmakers’ lack of institutional knowledge.
Illustration by Chad Maupin
In the northwestern shadow of the state Capitol’s dome stands a low-slung building that is all squares and rectangles, an architectural celebration of the straight line. Inside, a government agency named the Bureau of Legislative Research goes about the vital work of helping state legislators turn sometimes-slippery political rhetoric into precisely worded bills which can be voted on and, if passed, implemented into Arkansas’ legal code.
But the agency’s mission goes beyond that, according to Director Marty Garrity.
While the legal division assists state senators and representatives in drafting bills, the fiscal division has staff that provides information on the state budget. And, the research division produces independent studies and analyses at the request of legislators.
“I think those would probably be the three major areas,” Garrity said. “But, I would certainly add committee staffing [providing staff to assist legislative committees]. And, then again, none of this happens without our folks in information technology [a division providing computer services to the Legislature]. But they’re sort of in the background. They’re the infrastructure part of it.”
Originally from Washington State, Garrity has been the BLR’s executive director since July 2012, when she was chosen by a committee of four House members and four senators. She first joined BLR in 1997 as a drafting attorney, one of the staff who helps write bills. In doing that job, Garrity said House and Senate members can give them a variety of materials to work from.
“Sometimes we do just get the general idea: ‘I want a bill to do X, Y and Z.’ So, we’ll research it and we’ll draft it up. Sometimes we get a more structured idea: ‘I need a bill to do X, Y and Z and it needs to have this, this and this in there.’ And then at times we get [an already] drafted bill, essentially, ‘I want a bill to look exactly like this,’” Garrity explained. “It just varies depending on the member, depending on the issue, depending on so many factors.”
A Nonpartisan Approach
A key requirement of working at BLR is the ability to check your political opinions at the door every day.
“Nonpartisanship is really at the core of what we do at the Bureau,” Garrity said. “We provide services to all 135 members [of the Legislature], regardless of political affiliation, whether they’re in the House or the Senate. We don’t look at issues and determine what members we’re going to assign to what attorneys. Our attorneys and committee staff and researchers are all specialized in subject matter areas and because of that, the attorney that handles a certain subject like public health or judiciary needs to be able to provide services to all 135 members. When we [hire], that is a main focus of our orientation and even during the interview process, that we are nonpartisan, that once a member even perceives that a staff person has a bias either for or against a party or an issue, then that staff person can’t serve all 135 members. And we’ve done, in my opinion, a good job providing nonpartisan services to all members of the general assembly.”
With the next session of the Legislature looming, the BLR is adding 10-15 temporary staff to its 115 full-time employees, gearing up for the agency’s busy season.
“We’ve become busy all year long,” Garrity said. “We’re just busier now [with a session coming], and it’s the longer hours and the weekend hours that are required during session. As long as the members are here, we’re here. So if they meet late into the night, we’re here…there are late nights, research needs to be produced quicker, fiscal impacts need to be done faster.”
The Value of Institutional Knowledge
The upcoming session is a fiscal session, meaning it deals with state budget matters rather than general policies and laws. So the heaviest burden will fall on the BLR’s fiscal staff, according to Garrity. Together with the rest of BLR staff, they represent a tremendous store of what she calls “institutional knowledge” of how state government works. In the age of term limits, that knowledge is critical to aid legislators who may have little experience at the job.
But, does that mean new legislators rely more heavily on BLR staff than experienced ones?
“For the process or the procedure, yes, I think so,” Garrity said. “The House and the Senate have done great jobs at orientation. I think they saw the need and they do a really good job at providing orientation for House and Senate members. But I would also say that as members understand more of what the bureau does, they require more of us, which is a good thing. I think some new members don’t — at times — know everything that is available to them from our agency. And as they get to know us better and know what we can do for them, we’re able to provide them with additional services.”
It‘s something Garrity and her personnel enjoy providing.
“We’re a little-known agency, but I think that’s sort of how we like it,” she said. “We provide the services for the members. And we try to stay behind the scenes.”
5 Things to Expect from the 2016 Legislative Session
Arkansas Senate President Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang and House Speaker Jeremy Gillam weigh in on the upcoming fiscal session.
1. A Later-Than-Usual Start
Ordinarily, the Arkansas General Assembly would have already convened its 2016 fiscal session. This year, however, the start of the session has been delayed until April. One benefit of the late start is that it allows all the members to focus on legislating rather than campaigning.
“In the past…we would have been going into the fiscal session in late January, early February,” Dismang said. “And so those members [facing re-election] would have been campaigning in the middle. They would have been in session while campaigning for their primary. With the way that it’s structured now, the fiscal session will actually take place after the primary is over. So you’ve got a good bit of time in between then and the general [election].”
Dismang’s counterpart in the House, Gillam, offered another positive.
“A big plus is it will allow us to have a couple more months of revenue collection to see the pattern and trends a little bit better than we would if we were meeting in January and February like we have in years past…which we do feel will allow us to get even better budgets than what we have in years past,” Gillam said.
2. A Focus on the Budget
Since 2016 is an even-numbered year, the session is referred to as “fiscal” rather than “regular.” Absent an extraordinary vote to introduce regular policy bills, it will focus on state budgetary matters only.
“It’s dollars and cents all the way,” Gillam said.
3. A ‘Stabilizing’ Process
Arkansas is legally required to enact a balanced budget, stabilizing spending with revenues. A careful process makes it happen. It begins with a revenue forecast for the upcoming fiscal year.
The governor and the various state agencies submit their own proposed budgets before the session starts. The Legislature then takes those into consideration and passes what are called appropriation bills, getting everyone on the same page to produce a Revenue Stabilization Act, funding the government by the end of the session.
Gillam described it with an analogy that he credited to Dismang: The appropriation determines the size of an agency’s “bucket,” while the RSA authorizes how much money will actually be put into that bucket. State spending is also prioritized as A, B or C. This helps ensure that the most important priorities (A), such as education and the criminal justice system, are funded before less important categories.
4. Short and Sweet
Gillam added that fiscal sessions are typically more efficient than regular sessions.
“There’s such a broad net being cast [in a regular session] because the membership of the House and the Senate are filing bills from the entire spectrum…And one of the things about the fiscal session is you’re solely focused on the budget and appropriations for the agencies,” he explained. “And, it allows for a lot more focus than what you would have in a regular session.”
That will likely allow the Legislature to wrap up the session without an extension, he noted.
“Of course, it’s always subject to change as we get closer…but for right now the sense that I’m getting is that we’re probably going to be able to come in and get this wrapped up within the 30 days,” he said. “I think the members are going to be very focused just like they were in [last year’s] general session.”
5. A Special Session Before or After
The state Legislature’s job this year will probably include more than just the fiscal session. Following a study and report by a consultant, the governor wants to find cost savings in the state’s traditional Medicaid program. That will require policy changes that cannot be done during a fiscal session without an extraordinary vote.
“I anticipate that instead of dragging those [issues] into the fiscal session, that we’ll actually have a special session that will, at this point I would think, convene right around the same time as the fiscal,” Dismang said. He wasn’t sure whether that would be before or after the fiscal session.
“It’s probably a little premature to say,” he explained. “Just on first blush, I would say we may have a special session just before the fiscal. But that’s a discussion we’ll have to have with the speaker’s office and the governor’s office in seeing what their expectations are. Now, of course, that really goes back to how it goes with the governor’s negotiations in regards to the expanded [Medicaid] population and also the discussion that the Legislature is having right now in regards to the [Arkansas Department of Human Services] budget…. And, that’s a contentious issue, a lot of discussion on managed care and if that’s a viable option for the state, or if there’s something that’s slightly different called care management that could be utilized. There’s a number of different things on the table right now that have to be ironed out before we can have that special session.”
In mid January, the governor said that he planned to call two fiscal sessions to address Medicaid issues and state highway funding separately. It should make for an interesting legislative season. Stay tuned.