By TOM HENRY
As published in the Wednesday, November 30, 2016 Blytheville C
Arkansas politics for decades was as predictable as the sun coming up every morning. The Democrats held super-majorities in both houses of the state legislature, as well as all congressional offices and each statewide constitutional office. The Governor was the “head of the party” and it was his agenda that guided the General Assembly. That was just a known given, a law of nature if you will. But all that has changed since Bill Clinton’s reign from the Governor’s Mansion.
Keep in mind, however, that politicians are nothing if not adaptable and expert at counting votes.
Therefore, despite it being somewhat unusual for an incumbent to switch parties immediately after Election Day, this year it happened twice in Arkansas. Lightening can strike twice. Both state representatives were formerly Democrats, but jumped ship and found new homes with the Republican Party of Arkansas (RPA) since Nov. 8. As a result the RPA now possesses a 75-percent super-majority in the Arkansas House of Representatives and are only one seat short of doing the same in the Arkansas Senate. The main significance of this is that now the Democrats have no way of stopping appropriations they oppose based solely upon a party vote. This gives Republicans the ability to truly control the power of the purse.
The two defectors are both in their third terms. Rep. David Hillman of Almyra (District 12, which includes portions of Arkansas, Lonoke, Prairie and White counties) and Rep. Jeff Wardlaw of Hermitage (District 8, which includes Calhoun and Bradley counties, along with parts of Dallas and Union counties) are now back in the majority party. As a result of their two defections, Republicans have added 13 additional seats in the House of Representatives and two seats in the Senate to reach 26 during this year’s election.
Republicans now occupy 101 of the 135 House seats in the Arkansas General Assembly. That is in stark contrast to just eight years ago when the Democrats controlled 102. In fact, Arkansas Republicans have picked up 101 new seats in the General Assembly since 2014 and now control all six of the state’s congressional seats and all seven statewide constitutional offices. But the question now remains, who is the party’s policy leader? Who sets the legislative agenda? That is being decided behind the scenes right now, in preparation of the new session of the 91st General Assembly.
Hillman, in a press release, said that his change of party was, “After much prayer, thought, and consultation (and a few sleepless nights) in order to better represent the changing political views of the people in our district, I have decided to change my party affiliation to Republican… I will continue to fight for the interests of our district, rural Arkansas and agriculture.”
Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson is confident that the two parties will be able to work well together for Arkansas citizens. “Arkansas has always had a tradition of both parties working together and whether the Republicans have a super majority or not, I expect that tradition of bipartisanship to continue into the future,” he said. ”While there are differences in approach between the parties, when it comes to the critical issues of our state in terms of improving education and job creation, it’s easy to bring people together for the best result for Arkansas.”
Nevertheless, Hutchinson does believe that the Republican super-majority will have an impact.
“The fact that we now have the largest majority of Republicans in [the] history of the General Assembly should make it a more favorable climate for tax reform, choice in education and reform of state government,” Hutchinson added.
When asked what the Governor’s agenda will be during the upcoming new session, he said, “We’ll continue to announce different parts of my legislative package between now and the legislative session, but I’ve already indicated reforming the higher education funding formula as a lead priority. This new funding formula will allow us to focus on student achievement and not just student enrollment. This is a historic shift in how we fund higher education in this state, and it’s a significant priority. In addition, I expect continued reform of some of our state government agencies to improve efficiencies and to address the challenges and needs in child welfare, as well as increased pressures from prison overcrowding.”
Perhaps equally important regarding the influence that local legislators have at the State Capitol is what assignments they are given. Last week all three Mississippi County state legislators were given their upcoming 2017 committee assignments. Republicans Sen.-elect Dave Wallace and Rep.-elect Johnny Rye are both entering their first term in their respective chambers and since committee assignments are based upon seniority and party, their committee assignments should improve in the future.
However, Rep. Monte Hodges is in his third term and has secured more prestigious assignments than his peers.
Hodges will be an Assistant Speaker Pro-Tempore for the First Congressional District Caucus. He will also have seats on the Joint Budget Committee, the Revenue and Taxation Committee, the Aging, Children & Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs Committee and has also been named a second alternate on the First Congressional District Legislative Council.
Wallace has named as vice chair for the Senate Interim Committee on Children and Youth and as a member of the State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee, the Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development Committee, the Arkansas Legislative Council and as first alternate on the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee.
Rye has been assigned to the Public Transportation Committee, the City, County and Local Affairs Committee and as a first alternate for the Joint Budget Committee.
The CN spoke with all three local legislators regarding their impressions of the new super-majority and how it will affect their ability to represent Mississippi County.
Also asked was what the legislative agenda will be with the new session that will begin on Monday, Jan. 9.
“Here is the bottom line. We’re the majority party. We have a clear majority. It’s on our backs to perform and it’s on our backs to perform the wishes or the people of Arkansas. We talked the talk and we won the elections, now we have to fulfill the promises because we have been given a clear mandate, Wallace (R-Leachville, District 22) said. “My agenda is to reduce the cost of state government, I think we’ll see another state income tax cut to return money back to the voters.
“There is still a lot of waste in state government and we have to do something about it. We have to make it easier to do business in Arkansas. Just a couple years ago Arkansas was the second most heavily regulated state in the country, behind only Hawaii…it wasn’t even California. If we want more jobs in Arkansas, we have to make it easier to do business in our state… tort reform will do that, lower taxes will do that and less government regulation will do that.”
Hodges (D-Blytheville, District 55) said, “It’s just a new era and a new time. The people have spoken and this is the makeup of the state legislature and hopefully we can all work together to complete what we need to get done for the people of the state…Although I’m a Democrat, I just want to see good policy and good legislation pass that is healthy for the people that we represent…I can’t say what the agenda will be for others, but for me and my party, we want to see ethics legislation move forward and I personally want to see pre-K funded. There is probably going to be some tax cut proposal come forth, but things are always day-by-day when we’re in session.”
Rye (R-Trumann, District 54) said, “Down in the legislature, though we’re Republicans and Democrats, we are going there to do the right thing for our constituents. Now I would hope that we’ll have more conservative legislation…and I would think that it will be a lot easier to get conservative things through, but at the same time not only are we talking about Democrats and Republicans, but also a lot of people down there that are more pro-business…and we need more business and economic development in our area…[as far as an agenda] I don’t think it’s a lot different…I think that it’s almost business as usual continuing to fund those things that are a need…I don’t foresee a tax increase for roads…and I don’t foresee a straight agenda for the Republican Party, just a good, solid, conservative agenda [in general],” Rye said.
Regardless of the party totals or party agendas, the three legislators for Mississippi County seem, at this point at least, to be headed in somewhat the same direction with their personal legislative goals.