In the Arkansas General Assembly, there are high-profile legislators, lawmakers with strengths in key areas, and some who are more effective working behind the scenes. With that in mind, here are my picks for the 5 most influential Republican state legislators who are "driving the debate" at the state capitol.
Sen. Gilbert Baker (R-Conway) – Baker’s position as a ten-year veteran in the Senate and his reputation for working in a bipartisan manner secured him the influential position of Senate Co-Chair of the Joint Budget Committee. As the committee responsible for budget appropriation, it is perhaps the most important body within the state legislature. In addition, Baker was an insider in Senate leadership where many times the real debate takes place behind the scenes. His proposed tax cut on used cars was one of only a handful that managed to make its way into the final tax cut package. Although Baker did experience one high profile disagreement with House Republicans over which tax cuts to pass, he ultimately used his legislative skills and experience to his advantage.
Rep. Jonathan Barnett (R-Siloam Springs) – Rep. Barnett drew criticism from many conservatives for his support of several tax increases, but this list is the most influential Republicans not the most conservative so in this respect he makes my list. As a former Highway Commissioner appointed by Gov. Mike Huckabee, Barnett made no secret or apology for his goal of finding a revenue stream to fund new highway construction and maintenance. As the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Barnett became the key ally of Speaker Robert Moore in passing two separate highway bond proposals coupled with tax increases that will be referred to voters for their approval. He also used his influence to bring enough Republicans on board to have the measure pass the House with broad bipartisan support.
Rep. John Burris (R-Harrison) - As the leader of a record number of House Republicans, Burris was thrust in a position of influence that required careful diplomacy. The new robust Republican minority with 45 members was made up of many points of view. Burris managed to unite the new Tea Party members with more establishment and moderate Republicans, while at the same time reaching out to a handful of conservative Democrats needed for passage of bills. This skill was critical in the final days of the session when debate heated up on implementation of the new health care exchanges and Congressional redistricting.
Rep. Davy Carter (R-Cabot) – Selected as Chairman of the House Committee on Revenue and Taxation, Rep. Carter achieved what many would have said was impossible only a year ago for a Republican. This position proved to be key in the passage of around $35 million in tax cuts. By carefully controlling the timing of the many tax cuts proposals that came through his committee, Carter allowed the House to be in on the tax cut negotiations that had previously been primarily between the Senate and Governor. Although Carter did not manage to pass every tax cut measure supported by Republicans, his influence led to more cuts than the majority party wanted to allow. In addition, Carter’s influence among his colleagues is evident. Although he has indicated he will not seek the Speaker’s chair, many believe he would be a favorite if he did. As it is, he is likely next in line to be the House Co-chair of the Joint Budget Committee. His strong influence is exercised judiciously and his future seems to be as bright as any state legislator.
Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy) – Perhaps Dismang’s most high profile legislative achievement was successfully carrying Lt. Gov. Mark Darr’s "Open Checkbook" measure through both chambers. After the measure was rejected in the previous legislative session, Dismang managed to shepherd the bill with little opposition this time around. But his real behind-the-scenes achievement may have been missed by many observers. As a former House member with many close allies still in that chamber, Dismang served as a bridge between some of the fierce negotiations between the House and Senate. He may be one of the key unsung heroes in working out a deal on the tax cut package that was finally passed.
Honorable Mention: Rep. Terry Rice (R-Waldron), Rep. Duncan Baird (R-Bentonville), Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock), Sen. Johnny Key (R-Mountain Home), and Sen. Michael Lamoureux (R-Russellville).