The comic Robin Williams used to joke, not particularly accurately, that neither police officers nor criminals in England carried guns, so all the officer could say was, "Stop! Or I’ll say, ‘Stop!’ again!"
That must be how Gov. Beebe feels about his veto power.
Like governors in all states, Beebe has the power to veto legislation, but unlike governors in most states, a simple majority of elected legislators is all that’s required to override it.
That’s the same percentage who passed the bill in the first place, and when it comes to spending bills requiring a three-fourths majority, far less.
Beebe has used his veto power three times this legislative session – once regarding a bill that would limit abortions after 20 weeks, once regarding a bill that would limit abortions after 12 weeks, and once regarding a bill requiring voters to present a photo I.D. before casting their ballots. All three were swiftly overridden. No doubt there were numerous other bills he believed shouldn’t become law, but, considering the consequences, what’s the point?
The purpose of the veto is to provide a check and balance on the legislative branch and to offer one last chance to stop what could be a bad law. The governor, after all, represents all Arkansans, while each of these legislators are elected to represent only their districts. The override, meanwhile, provides a check and balance on the governor, which is important because he has all kinds of other powers, starting with the fact that he keeps running state government after the legislators go home.
The power of the veto is important enough that the Founding Fathers gave it to the president while all 50 states gave it to their governors. According to The Council of State Governments, most states require some variant of a two-thirds or three-fifths majority to override. Arkansas is one of six requiring only a majority of elected legislators – the others being Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia. In Pennsylvania, a simple majority of legislators present is all that is needed.
Time was, despite its apparent irrelevance, the veto power in Arkansas was a powerful tool. According to the book, "Arkansas Politics and Government" by Diane Blair and Jay Barth, there were only 15 overrides from 1958 until 1995, about one percent of the total number of vetoes.
It was successful for a lot of reasons, including the fact that it reminded state legislators who the party’s big boss man was.
But that only matters when the governor and legislators are members of the same party, as has been the case for most of Arkansas’ history. When Republican Mike Huckabee was governor and Democrats controlled the Legislature, they overrode 10 of his 16 vetoes during his first legislative session in 1997. Today’s Republican legislators who control both the House and Senate are not intimidated by the big boss man in the Governor’s Mansion. For the three months they are in Little Rock, they are the big boss man.
Is that a problem? For Beebe, yes. For Republicans in the Legislature, not at all, considering the circumstances. For average Arkansans, it probably depends on who you ask and whether they want anything vetoed.
There’s a reason that 43 states and the Founding Fathers thought more than a majority vote was needed to override a veto. Probably, if I could rewrite the Arkansas Constitution, I’d go with three-fifths.
But if this is a problem, there’s a good chance it will resolve itself. Arkansans will elect a new governor in 2014, and since President Obama, who is very unpopular here, will still be in office, the winner likely will be a Republican with a Republican Legislature.
Then the big boss man – assuming it’s a man – will once again be in the same party as the Legislature. And, more often than now, when he says "Stop," legislators actually will.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org