Much will be made of the upcoming General Assembly, and time truly will tell if Republicans can lead the state following a clean sweep last November. There will be plots and story lines, but at the end of the day, how will history view this next Session?
Each year going into a regular legislative session, there are a few headlines that grab the attention of the mostly disinterested voter and dominate the political rhetoric. You know the three or four topics that you can make a statement or two about and feel like you are in the know on the current issues affecting the state before (or after) the small talk moves to if the Razorbacks will be ranked following their bowl victory over Texas.
This year, you have those issues as usual. How will the private option fare with a new group of legislators? Can the new governor deliver on his tax cut campaign promise? Are we really going to spend $231 Million dollars on a new prison?
A key difference and additional dynamic will be how do Republicans govern and can they get along better in Arkansas than they seem to nationally, and will this newfound power and control do away with the good will and bipartisan policy making from the past?
While there will be some 2,000 bills filed, the majority of the attention ought to focus on the budget. The intertwining of the topics listed above will be evident early in the Session as legislators try to responsibly cut taxes without jeopardizing economic development and higher education, which some say cannot be done. It will also be paramount to see how the Private Option weaves its way through the tax cut debate and if one can exist without the other. Many insiders believe that for a tax cut to occur, the PO must be passed.
There will be some key discussions along the way, like how we handle our prisoners, and should we allocate a lot of resources for a new prison? There will be statements from county government and sheriffs that call for immediate action, and rightfully so. They have been the holding pods for the state prison system at rates below the market. While building a new prison makes for good debate, I haven’t seen the political will to do so at this time, but something will have to be done with the current backlog of prisoners – new prison or not.
Look for some changes to the current scholarship lottery to be presented. What if I told you 64% of the scholarship recipients fail to make the grade and lose their scholarship? Doesn’t sound like a very good investment, does it? You also have to deal with declining revenues and lowering scholarship opportunities. Tough choices are coming on this issue, but they will be dealt with.
Another interesting topic is Amendment 3 recently approved by the voters that dealt with a myriad of issues from ethics reforms to salaries to term limits. How will enabling legislation be written to protect the ethic reforms inside the Amendment? What will the Independent Citizens Commission do with salary reforms, and what might occur as it relates to a backlash for the term limit change (it basically added 2 years to what could be served collectively in both Chambers). Another common thread has been that the voters “didn’t know” what they were voting on. Really? The tally shows that 428,206 people voted for it. That’s a lot of folks being misdirected.
There are a multitude of topics worthy of print here and even more vital to our future as a state. Can we improve our infrastructure and transportation without increasing revenues? How do we deal with the mentally ill and what can we do to provide more resources there? What can we do to improve education and allow teachers to teach and kids to learn? How do we make our state a jobs magnet and continue economic development success stories? Weighty topics. Not always good sound bites. Hard to comprehend in a paragraph or two. But all are important to our growth.
At the end of the day, I am hoping that you see us govern as statesmen and women; that we take the hard subjects head on and try to deal with them. Don’t be petty. Realize that it doesn’t always go as planned. Learn from our mistakes. Live to see another day. These are life lessons we are supposed to learn in elementary school, yet most of us are still trying to master as adults.
While we are elected as Republicans and Democrats, we are sworn in as Representatives and Senators – of ALL the People. I hope we remember that with every vote we cast. I hope you remember that with every vote we cast. Get involved. Don’t just post a critical paragraph on Facebook after a vote or slam us on Twitter. Let us know where you stand before the vote comes to the floor. Be engaged, and yet realize that we will all not agree on everything.
The opportunity to be a part of the process is one of the reasons this is the greatest country in the world. I hope you don’t let that opportunity pass you by in 2015.