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House keeper 

Election year 2006 kicks off with a contest in which most of us won’t have the chance to vote. But that doesn’t make it any less important.

At 11 a.m. on Jan. 9, the 100 members of the Arkansas House of Representatives will gather to elect a new speaker for the 2007 legislative session. They will choose between Will Bond of Jacksonville and Benny Petrus of Stuttgart. Both are Democrats who expect to be re-elected for a third (and final) term in 2006.

Term limits are what make this speaker’s race particularly significant. UALR political science professor Art English studied the impact of term limits on the Arkansas legislature and found that the speaker’s position, which once was “somewhat ceremonial,” has become more powerful than ever before.

“I think in the House term limits did centralize power more, because with a lack of senior members it seems to be that the formal positions in the house become more important,” English said in an e-mail.

The higher stakes result in a vigorously contested race. Both Bond and Petrus express confidence in their chances but acknowledge the election will be close. It will be a secret ballot, but several legislators and other people involved with securing commitments independently said that Bond has the edge with anywhere from 53 to 56 votes.

They also consistently named the same five or six House members as still being on the fence. One of them, Robbie Wills, was willing to speak on the record.

“The perception is that it’s a real close race,” said the Conway Democrat. He mentioned that the vote may come down to loyalties formed during the 2003 session, before Wills was elected to the legislature.

“It’s gotten emotional for some members,” Wills said. “Benny Petrus and Will Bond were on either side of the school consolidation issue from the 2003 session. Benny sided with those who wanted to make some last-minute budget changes, and Will wanted to go ahead and get it hammered out. That shut down the session, and I know some members still have some hard feelings over that.”

For their part, Bond and Petrus basically say the same things about what they will bring to the speaker’s position, using words like “inclusiveness” and “leadership.” They stress that the election will not hinge on particular issues as much as managerial competence and fairness. But the two men have very different voting records and approaches to governing.

Besides the 2003 episode Wills mentioned, Petrus voted this year for the Tax Increment Financing bill that allows school money to be steered toward commercial real estate developers. In the past he has voted against expanding early childhood education and using the tobacco tax to fund the state Department of Health and Human Services. In short, Petrus is no progressive, and in that regard his record stands in sharp contrast to Bond’s.

Petrus also embodies the free-spending lobbying culture that persists at the State Capitol. He kept a lobbyist-financed hospitality suite during this year’s session where his colleagues could partake of free food and drink and he has assembled numerous dinners, parties and other gatherings to garner votes for speaker.

His campaign finance reports show that he raised over $70,000 for his uncontested re-election bid in 2004. Petrus says that he “had a guy who threatened to run against me,” but the money was pouring in long after anyone could have filed to challenge him. Even more interesting is how he disbursed that money, spreading contributions to many House campaigns, including those of the most conservative Republicans (who are expected to support his speaker bid).

He also paid generous consulting fees to prominent lobbyists, like former Senate chief of staff Bill Lancaster. While Lancaster is not known for his campaign experience — which wouldn’t be crucial in an uncontested race anyway — he does have particular expertise in arranging social events for legislators. That culture will likely become part of how the House operates if Petrus wins the speaker’s race.

Petrus says he has not promised anything in exchange for votes, but some insiders dispute that. The speaker appoints committee chairs and select committees and assigns each piece of legislation to a committee, which often determines its fate. And there are even more spoils to distribute, according to English’s study: “Since the invocation of term limits the House has gone simply from a speaker and speaker pro tem model to four assistant speakers pro tem, one for each congressional district, widening the speaker’s leadership circle and assigning greater status to these legislators.”

With this kind of influence over members, as well as increased public visibility, the new speaker of the House will wield tremendous power during the next two years. The vote on Jan. 9 will determine whether the legislature is run like a responsible governing institution or an unprogressive instrument of corporate interest.

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