Arleg forgot to take a separate vote on the LEARNS Act emergency clause, rendering the emergency null and void. Will this interrupt the new law’s timeline? 

UPDATE: Ms. Noland has filed suit against the Arkansas Department of Education on behalf of CAPES. The group is asking for declaratory judgment on the LEARNS emergency clause.

In deference to the Governor, the 94th General Assembly made an error when it played fast and loose with legislative procedure. In the sloppy rush to push Sanders’ priorities, Arleg forgot to take a separate vote on the LEARNS Act emergency clause — and every other emergency clause from this past session —  rendering the immediate effect date of relevant laws invalid.

Today Little Rock School Board member Ali Noland notified the State Board of Education that the Marvell-Eliane School District’s contract with a charter company is not effective. Because there was no legislative vote on the emergency clause of LEARNS, the function allowing a charter to enter a contract with a failing public school is not current law, Noland wrote.

Laws without emergency clauses (that do not have specified dates) take effect 90 days after session ends. In the case of LEARNS, the charter contract would not be legal until July 31st.

Make haste, wreak havoc: the legislative sloppiness of LEARNS

In late February-early March, the LEARNS Act zoomed through Arleg, causing sensible leaders to question the need to rush such a substantial piece of legislation. Those who cautioned against expediting the legislation argued lawmakers needed to better vet the bill and consider making amendments to avoid potential pitfalls.

Due diligence is essential to a decent legislative process and members like Sen. Jimmy Hickey said as much from the Senate floor. Some members took the argument a step further. You may recall when LEARNS first dropped in Senate Education Committee, Kim Hammer quipped that the devil was in the details and “details are what get you sued.” Was Hammer’s worry prophetic?

The warning was not heeded and LEARNS sponsors pressed the bill through, complete with an emergency clause. When Sanders signed the bill, the emergency clause dictated LEARNS was immediate educational law of the land. Or so we thought.

What’s an emergency clause anyway?

The legislative “emergency” mechanism can be added to any bill; if passed, the emergency portion renders the bill effective immediately upon signature of the governor.

Videos of the House and Senate vote on LEARNS clearly show a batched vote for both the bill and the emergency clause.

An emergency clause can be added to a bill if lawmakers believe immediate effect is necessary for the immediate preservation of public peace, health, or safety. It’s also employed if a law’s delay could result in harm to the public. It’s hard to see what harm would come from not immediately implementing voucher expansion, but the legislature attached the emergency clause nonetheless. After all, Governor Sanders wants to ride the school choice wave to her next political opportunity.


But here’s the catch: the Arkansas constitution requires a separate vote for a bill’s emergency. One vote for the bill. Another vote for the specified emergency. Arleg flubbed this — both Speaker Shepherd and Lt. Gov Leslie Rutledge batched the LEARNS bill with its emergency clause, instructing members to vote once on both items; the emergency portion was technically never voted on, rendering not just the LEARNS emergency clause but any emergency clause the 94th General Assembly passed as invalid.

The Arkansas Times writes that parliamentarians for both chambers said this is standard procedure. They also said the chambers recorded the bill and the emergency as two separate votes. We’re not lawyers, but it appears that recording one vote as two votes does not make the move constitutionally compliant.

What does this mean for the scores of bills passed into law with unconstitutional emergency clauses? That’s unclear. However, the flub could have an impact on other components of LEARNS, which technically isn’t law right now — not to mention how it may impact a referendum from CAPES, the citizen-led group determined to repeal LEARNS. If the group is able to collect enough signatures within 90 days for their referendum and get their ballot title approved, get this: per the Arkansas Constitution, LEARNS would be put on hold until November 2024 until voters have the chance to weigh in on the policy themselves. That would be quite the plot twist.

Guess legislative due diligence actually matters.