The Arkansas Senate convened for the 91st General Assembly on Monday (Jan. 9) with little fanfare as President Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, acknowledged lawmakers face some difficult issues ahead, but promised to get them back home to their families as quickly as possible.
“Without a doubt, the session is going to be full of challenges – challenges that we know today and challenges that are unknown tomorrow,” Dismang told lawmakers and family members gathered in the Senate Chamber. “But as a body … I believe we will successfully rise to the challenge.”
In his brief opening speech to new and returning senators, the Republican lawmaker asked his Senate colleagues to remain focused on important issues and be respectful to each other.
“The person to your left, the person to your right and the person across the room, R (Republican) or D (Democrat), or the person that you disagree with the most – each of you share a common vision, and that is you want a better Arkansas,” said Dismang, elected to the Senate in 2010. “I think the most important thing is to respect the diversity among each of the members. I believe that is what is truly going to let us be successful.”
Dismang offered his challenge to the upper chamber members after he was sworn in by newly elected Arkansas Chief Justice Dan Kemp. The Senate kicked off the legislative session with four new senators among the 35 members, that includes 26 Republicans and nine Democrats.
Besides Dismang, Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, will serve as Majority Leader, while Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, will be the Majority Whip. Democrat Sens. Keith Ingram and Will Bond of West Memphis and Little Rock, respectively, with serve as the top leaders for the minority party.
The Arkansas Legislature last convened in early 2016 for a fiscal session to approve a $5.3 billion general revenue budget for state government. Ahead of this year’s biennium, Gov. Asa Hutchinson proposed a $50.5 million tax cut he says will focus on reducing the tax burden for the bulk of the state’s lowest wage earners making less than $21,000 a year. In the 2015 general session, Hutchinson was able to enact a $102 million tax cut that lowered the state’s middle income tax bracket from 6% to 5%. Hutchinson said extending tax cuts to lower wage earners is the second part of his overall strategy, and the next step would be to provide tax relief for the state’s wealthiest citizens before he leaves office.
Combined with other tax cuts approved by the legislature in 2015, the reduced income taxes will save Arkansas families about $100 million a year and lower personal income taxes for about 688,000 middle class Arkansas taxpayers, lawmakers have said.
Hester has also proposed a $105 million income tax relief plan that would expand the 5% income tax bracket to all taxpayers with annual incomes between $25,000 to $50,000. Hester’s tax plan would benefit people with incomes of $21,000 to $35,000, or add another 187,000 to the 5% income tax bracket, he said.
Also in 2016, Arkansas voters approved a constitutional amendment legalizing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. A newly created Medical Marijuana Commission has begun meeting to determine how best to license growers and sellers of medical marijuana. In addition, numerous bills affecting medical marijuana are expected to be introduced once the session gets going full steam.
Sens. Jason Rapert of Conway, David Sanders of Little Rock, Linda Collins-Smith of Pocahontas, and Greg Standridge of Russellville, all Republicans, did not attend today’s mostly ceremonious event. Most lawmakers from both the House and Senate plan to attend a reception and dinner Monday evening, hosted by the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Arkansas.