Talk Business: Arkansas’ Top 10 legislators

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 286 views 

So who stood out in the 89th General Assembly?

Before the session, we offered our picks of ones to watch, but there were surprises in our post-session analysis. We give House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, and Senate President Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, automatic passes in the category of making a difference. Both men kept the trains moving and, in the end, made this session successful for their parties and their leadership positions.

• Speaker of the House Davy Carter, R-Cabot
No one had more at stake for political success or failure than House Speaker Davy Carter.

With the thinnest of margins to govern and a big wound to heal in his GOP ranks after his Speaker’s coup in November, Carter never questioned his move to cobble together a coalition of loyal Republicans and the House’s 48 Democrats.

“It was as challenging as I thought it would be,” Carter said in a post-session interview. “The dynamics were what I thought it would be. I think I made the right decision.”

Carter, a native of Marianna, was raised on a farm and had what he calls a pretty normal childhood. A doting mom and a proud father still encourage him at age 38. He also credits his wife, Cara, and three children for their patience and support.
Although he’s armed with a law degree, the full-time banker bolted from his day job before the session started in order to focus on the Speaker’s office.

Carter, whose daily wardrobe during the session included his trademark Brooks Brothers suit and cowboy boots, was easily accessible. If not available in the hallways, Carter conducted daily press conferences to allow inquiries from the media on developments at the capitol.

There were times that one could tell Carter might have regretted his decision. Early in the session when the press was dominated by coverage of gun and abortion bills, Carter had to work hard to contain his frustration.

The last full week in February may have been a nadir for him.

“I remember leaving here on a Friday – things were pretty tense around here. I just left home on that Friday, went home, that was probably the low point,” Carter said.

Rumblings in and out of the capitol were that the House, in particular, was rudderless and that the ultraconservative flank of the Republican caucus was controlling the agenda. Carter had signed up to deal with the big issues of Medicaid and tax cuts, and the Governor had thrown the Big River Steel superproject into the mix. All three issues appeared stalled.

“I thought we were in a bad place within the House amongst the members, in the public, with the media, I had to do something to change the dynamics,” Carter said. “I had a pity party that Friday night, worked my way out of that over the weekend, and thought I’d come back and shake it up a bit.”

The following Tuesday Carter gave his famous “half-time speech,” where he quickly made rounds in three committees – Judiciary, Public Health, and Revenue & Tax. He implored all three panels to get off the social issues and get to the fiscal side of the session’s business.

“In hindsight, I think it worked. We weren’t talking about all of those things. We were talking about how crazy Davy Carter was for calling for $150 million in tax cuts,” Carter recalled. He also admits that walking down the capitol steps from the House that morning, he was planning on asking for $100 million in tax cuts, but $150 million rolled off his tongue at the Revenue and Tax Committee table.


Early in the session, Carter realized that doing nothing on the Medicaid expansion front wasn’t going to be a workable solution. When it was presented to him what the penalties would be for businesses under the new federal health care law, Carter concluded that an Arkansas plan was going to have to be tried.

He asked a lot of questions of House and Senate colleagues and Beebe administration officials. His big whiteboard in his office was given a workout with multiple magic markers.

Carter views the private option as the best effort to capture the money available under health care expansion while also allowing for much-needed Medicaid reforms. He has no problem defending the program.

“Already now on this private option, you’ve already got the extreme right wing of the Republican Party saying we’ve implemented Obamacare and we’ve done all these bad things and you legislators will pay for this and they refused to even engage in the debate and take an honest approach to what was really on the table,” said Carter.

“You’ve got the extreme left and the Democratic Party saying, ‘See Obamacare is great and what was the big fuss about it anyway?’ It’s really unfortunate because anybody who was up here knows we really just did what was best for the state.”

Big River Steel had a moment in time where some questioned whether or not state lawmakers would chuck the $1.1 billion superproject. Needing a supermajority of 75 votes to approve the bond issue funding for the project, there was a contingency of northwest Arkansas lawmakers and fiscal conservatives who seemingly were willing to block the deal. Nucor Steel, a competitor to Big River, was mounting an effective lobbying campaign suggesting the project was nothing more than a state-subsidized handout that would hurt a long-standing corporate citizen in the region.

Carter contends that it just took time to allow the legislature to do its due diligence, but he explained that he did have to persuade a contingency of legislators to consider the positive ramifications the project could bring to the Delta.

“I think we mitigated the risk to the point that it was worth the chance. At least for me, where it was is a part of the decision-making. I said this repeatedly, especially to some of my friends from other parts of the state, that part of the state carried us for a long time,” said Carter in reference to the once-monolithic influence that agriculture had on the state’s economy before northwest Arkansas-based companies like Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt became household names.

Carter said that, if nothing else, the gamble for jobs and economic activity in northeast Arkansas gave hope to a region of the state needing it.

“If we wouldn’t have done anything, nothing would have changed. Now, I think there’s a more than reasonable chance that their lives can improve,” he said.

• Senate President Pro Temp Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville
“There’s no doubt that Davy deserves the credit he’s getting,” says Sen. Lamoureux, now comfortably back in jeans in his Russellville office days after the session’s end. “If I was doing two things, he was always doing twelve,” Lamoureux added.

The Arkansas State Senate had a much more comfortable Republican majority – 21 to 14 – and the collegial nature of the 35-member chamber also tends to discount polarizing party politics.

“My goal was to basically make it work,” Lamoureux confides. “At the end of the day, I wanted us to get a budget, do some of the things done we promised in the elections, and show that we could make the session run as it had always run before.”

He did. Lamoureux delivered on the big votes facing the 89th General Assembly – tax cuts, Medicaid and Big River Steel.

There were some dicey moments, however.

Lamoureux said the first few weeks of the session were spent essentially objecting to the Governor’s plan for a straight Medicaid expansion. The Senate leader said he knew that opposition without an alternative would be fatal for a party in control of the legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.

“I thought if we left without a resolution on Medicaid, if we didn’t give some guidance to the health care sector of our economy, I think that would have made it difficult for hospitals and medical care providers to plan,” he said. “I think it would have hurt in a lot of different ways.. we needed to leave there with some clarity.”

He credits Gov. Mike Beebe for an about-face early in the session when he suspects the Governor recognized that straight expansion was undoable.

“There was a moment where everybody that works for the Governor and all of the resources that he has went from being in total opposition to every idea to facilitating ideas,” said Lamoureux of the moment the debate turned to the private option.

He obviously credits Republican Sens. Jonathan Dismang and David Sanders for their leadership on the plan. He also says a Democrat, Sen. Paul Bookout, D-Jonesboro, has been underestimated in the debate.

“Bookout deserves a lot of credit. He kept Democrats in the Senate in the loop and urged patience to allow Republicans to work through the policy and their politics, said Lamoureux. “I don’t think he’s gotten enough attention and credit for that.”

After Speaker Carter delivered 77 votes to approve the funding bill for the private option in the waning days of the session, the Senate became the center of the spotlight for the plan. Lamoureux said that the last-minute changes pushed by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, were part of a patience-testing process also encouraged by Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot.

“Eddie Joe was very supportive of not rushing anybody. I was probably less supportive of that by this time,” said Lamoureux. “In order to give Missy the opportunity to provide her input, he would not agree to vote for the bill until we gave her every chance.”

There were several points during the day of the Senate vote that Lamoureux thought the wheels had come off. He said Sen. Sanders held the process together.

“David did a really good job of stepping in,” he said. “Every time someone tried to do something destructive, he would step in. He was both drafting policy and babysitting other adults, even putting people in different rooms.”

Lamoureux said he had no overriding particulars related to tax cuts; he just wanted to see a combination of targeted and widespread relief for business and individuals.

The Big River Steel project, which Lamoureux said was studied diligently by lawmakers, was not only the right policy for Arkansas, it also sent a signal about Republican rule.

“I think if the first time a superproject came up, supported by the Governor, the first chance to use Amendment 82, and we said ‘no, we don’t really think that’s a good idea,’ I think it would have hurt our economic developments going forward, that Arkansas wasn’t open for business,” Lamoureux said.

“Everybody tells people they’re going to be bipartisan. Nobody ever comes in and says I plan on being partisan. If the Republican legislature had rejected a project that that part of the state wanted that doesn’t have a lot of Republican-elected representation in the legislature, I think it would have looked partisan, whether that was the intent or not.”

Rounding out our Top 10 legislators are the following legislators. Talk Business Arkansas consulted with its writers, capitol lobbyists, other state lawmakers, and capitol insiders to assess our picks. We used a variety of criteria including success at legislation, ability to navigate difficult political hurdles, and activities that went on publicly and behind-the-scenes.

You may not agree with their politics – on either side of the aisle – but these lawmakers were heard from and made a difference in the 2013 General Assembly. In alphabetical order:
Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison
As the chair of the House Public Health Committee, Burris used his pugnacious attitude to carry out Speaker Carter’s mission to deliver on health care. Burris, who has been the outspoken leader of the House GOP in previous years, matured this session. Yes, he was feisty, but he also became the most competent and articulate spokesman for the private option health insurance plan.

Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville
Affable, engaging, and blessed with a strong personality, Collins’ peers coined a phrase for him this session: “Charnalogies.” Collins is the master of the analogy to make his point in private and public conversations. From Rubik’s cubes to dying children, he had quite a few. He was also relentless in his pursuit of the tax cut deal that eventually came to fruition. It wasn’t going to happen without Collins. His vocal advocacy for the private option also pushed it across the goal line.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe
The future leader of the State Senate had a strong session on several fronts, but he’ll be remembered for rolling up his sleeves and doing the difficult work of figuring out how to make the private option work politically and from a policy standpoint. His efforts aren’t done either. As the state plan moves forward, Dismang will be one of the main movers and shakers to ensure that the Beebe administration and Republicans deliver.

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock
This session might be dubbed “How Joyce Got Her Groove Back.” Elliott, the Senate’s truest liberal, passed plenty of legislation that touched on public schools, state employees, health populations, prisoners, immigrants and equal rights. More importantly, she returned to her place as the liberal conscience of the Senate. Elliott was the eloquent voice for the poor, the downtrodden, the overlooked, women, Latino and black minorities, and the little guy who has no major lobby at the state capitol.

Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home
Key proved he was ready for primetime. He guided difficult and contentious legislation through the Senate’s Education committee, which he chaired. There were certainly some conservative victories in the realm of school choice, home-schoolers and funding. Key navigated the tricky tight-rope of progressing conservative reforms without overthrowing the education establishment. In a word, it is called “compromise,” and Key proved he was pretty good at it.

Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville
Leding may have to share his reward on this list with several lieutenants, especially Rep. John Edwards, D-Little Rock, and Rep. Darrin Williams, D-Little Rock, who toiled quietly behind the scenes as mentors and negotiators. Leding and the House Democrats could have been more aggressive this session, but they would have lost the one biggest prize they treasured – Medicaid expansion. With Democrats in the minority for the first time since Reconstruction, Leding managed to hold his party caucus together and he avoided stabbing the GOP in the back when the private option chasm emerged.

Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock
As the freshman caucus president, Sabin made a name for himself quickly. He brought Regnat Populus to the table as part of a proposed constitutional amendment for ethics reform. Sabin passed business-friendly legislation aimed at creating jobs and he worked on a number of bills in a bipartisan fashion. Representing one of the most liberal House districts in the state, he could have been highly partisan. He wasn’t, and the goodwill he created in this session will set him up for future leadership at the capitol.

Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock
Like Sen. Dismang and Rep. Burris, Sanders was a workhorse this session, especially on the private option. Insiders say Sanders saved the day on the last-minute negotiations on the plan just as patience was wearing out. He also spearheaded a number of other successful efforts to reform the existing Medicaid program. Sanders was deeply involved in the tax cut debate and he successfully passed legislation tied to prison and sentencing reforms and economic development.