It was a banner year for business and politics capped by an epic U.S. Senate race that brought tens of millions of dollars into Arkansas and a wave of Republican rule that could stand for many cycles to come.
Talk Business & Politics’ writers and editors combed through the news stories of the last year to pull the top stories of the year, so without further ado, here they are:
GOP SWEEPS IN NOVEMBER
Led by resounding victories at the top of the ticket, Republicans made unprecedented gains at the federal, state and local levels in November 2014.
Congressman Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, trounced incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Arkansas, capping off a grueling 18-month battle that saw tens of millions of dollars spent by in-state and out-of-state groups. For more than a year, the race was positioned to tip control of the U.S. Senate into one party’s control. In the end, Cotton won by more than 17 points as the last month proved pivotal for opening up his lead after the national mood toward President Obama and Washington, D.C., swung solidly in the Republican column.
The top of the ticket was also aided by a near-flawless campaign from Gov.-elect Asa Hutchinson, R-Arkansas, who also easily defeated former Congressman Mike Ross, D-Prescott. The governor’s race also saw unprecedented spending from inside and outside the state, although not nearly of the magnitude as the Senate race.
Republicans easily won all four congressional seats, giving them control of all of the federal offices in Arkansas. Congressmen Steve Womack, R-Rogers, and Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, cruised to easy re-election victories, while newcomers French Hill, R-Little Rock, and state Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, won open seats by defeating solid Democratic rivals.
The GOP gains filtered down-ballot with Republicans taking commanding control of the state house. Republicans increased their margins in the 100-member House of Representatives from 51 seats to 64 seats, and in the 35-member state Senate from 22 to 24 seats.
They also won all of the remaining constitutional offices – including lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer and commissioner of state lands – giving Republicans the title of “majority party,” which includes controlling local election commissions in all 75 counties.
The year didn’t start off great for Republicans as its highest-ranking state official, Lt. Gov. Mark Darr resigned from office in January after an ethics scandal detailed problematic spending between his office, campaign and personal expenses.
His resignation took away a talking point for the GOP against Democrats, who had been struggling with ethics scandals involving Treasurer Martha Shoffner and state Sen. Paul Bookout, D-Jonesboro. Shoffner was convicted in March on six counts of extortion under color of official right, one count of attempted extortion under color of official right and seven counts of receipt of a bribe by an agent of a state government receiving federal funds. In November, federal prosecutors dropped mail fraud charges against Shoffner claiming a conviction would not greatly extend her sentencing from the previous charges.
4 OF 5 BALLOT ISSUES PASS
Four of five ballot issues were passed by Arkansas voters on Election Day 2014. The measures instituted legislative oversight of the executive branch, raising the minimum wage, new ethics rules and an extension of term limits. A proposal to expand alcohol sales failed.
Issue No. 1 allows the state Legislature to review and approve regulations submitted by executive agencies. It cleared voter approval handily by a 60-40% margin.
Issue No. 2, which altered how ballot signatures are reviewed by the secretary of state’s office, passed 53-47%.
Issue No. 3 changed a variety of ethics rules for state officeholders and also extended term limits to 16 years in either legislative chamber. It passed 52-48%. One provision of the measure’s passage would prohibit corporate contributions to candidates for office.
Issue No. 4, which would have expanded alcohol sales to all 75 counties, failed by a 57-43% margin.
Issue No. 5, which raises the minimum wage to $8.50 per hour by 2017, passed 66-34%.
The politics of the private option has been ongoing since its inception in 2013 and it promises to continue to be a political battle in 2015.
The GOP-crafted, bipartisan-supported legislation created a health-insurance exchange that allows federal Medicaid expansion funding from the Affordable Care Act to be used to supplement private health insurance for lower-income workers.
In 2014, the private option survived its first test for funding in the fiscal session. With three-fourths votes needed by both chambers of the Arkansas legislature, the PO barely cleared the hurdle and only after intense negotiations and multiple tries.
GOP gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson described the PO as a “pilot program” during his campaign. Since his victory in November, he’s said he is studying the private option.
Two days after his win, Hutchinson said he would work with leaders in the Legislature and in state government to look at benefits and costs and to determine if the program should be continued and, if so, what changes should be made. He said he would not commit to a decision “at least through the end of January.”
Many legislative candidates, particularly conservative Republicans, campaigned against the private option in the general election. Those candidates’ victories have many suspecting that a major reshaping of the private option is in the works for 2015 if supporters and Gov.-elect Hutchinson want to keep the federal funding coming. The Legislature could choose to eliminate the program altogether and wind it down before the state has to pick up a larger share of its costs.
AGENCY TURNOVERS & HOLDOVERS
State government will not only see a major makeover from the newly elected Republican officials who won office in November 2014, but Gov.-elect Asa Hutchinson will put his imprint on the state through a reshaping of agency leaders.
By year’s end, Hutchinson had already rattled off a litany of new agency directors and said he would keep several from the Beebe administration. Notably, Hutchinson will keep Department of Human Services director John Selig and Sheila Sharp at the Department of Community Correction.
He plans to replace Arkansas Economic Development Commission director Grant Tennille after a nationwide search for a replacement and a possible increase in salary for the position. Other replacements include Daryl Bassett to Workforce Services, Allen Kerr as insurance commissioner, and Brig. Gen. Mark H. Berry as 52nd adjutant general of the Arkansas National Guard.
As of year’s end, Hutchinson was still searching for an Education commissioner, Department of Higher Education director and head for the Department of Finance and Administration.
Hutchinson will also name a new highway commissioner and new Public Service Commissioner in January shortly after taking office.
Three major legal battles involving abortions, voter ID and same-sex marriages occurred in different stages throughout 2014.
The 89th General Assembly passed two major anti-abortion bills in the 2013 regular session over constitutionality objections by Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe. The GOP-led chambers overrode Beebe’s vetoes and in 2014, a legal ruling struck down a portion of one of those laws.
In April, federal Judge Susan Webber Wright ruled that a law prohibiting abortion after 12 weeks was unconstitutional and in violation of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Wright’s ruling did leave a provision of the law intact that requires a doctor to notify a pregnant woman when a fetal heartbeat is detected. The lawsuit is on appeal.
Democrats and Republicans fought tooth-and-nail over a law requiring voter IDs to be presented at the polls in the 2013 session. Again, the GOP-led legislature overrode a veto from Beebe. A legal ruling on the state law, however, struck down the controversial measure three weeks before Election Day 2014.
The Arkansas Supreme Court determined that the voter ID law did not pass constitutional muster because it required an “additional qualification” beyond four requirements currently in the state’s Constitution. Look for a constitutional referral in 2015.
For supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage, 2014 was a roller coaster ride. The state’s courts allowed, disallowed and ultimately were still considering the constitutionality of a 2004 voter-approved amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. The state Supreme Court had yet to issue its final determination on the suit by the end of 2014.
A concurrent federal lawsuit also worked its way through the court system with U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker determining the law unconstitutional. That ruling is on appeal.
BEEBE LEAVES THE SCENE
After more than three decades on the political scene, 2014 was the backdrop for Mike Beebe’s farewell tour. The two-term Governor completed his last full year in office and said he’d be retiring to his hometown of Searcy with no plans to re-enter politics.
Beebe, who leaves office with a high approval rating after eight years as Arkansas Governor, also served one term as Attorney General and more than two decades in the state Senate.
Beebe said he hoped to be remembered for two accomplishments. One was the Payment Reform Initiative that he sees as bending the cost curve on health care costs through an episodic care model versus a fee-for-service model. He also said he wanted Arkansas to have a higher self-esteem through his leadership – a “swagger” that would reflect a can-do mindset for the state.
“Not a negative Texas one (swagger), but a good positive one,” Beebe said.
HILLARY, HUCKABEE IN THE MIX
Could Arkansas find itself in the epicenter of another presidential race? There’s a good chance.
In 2014, Hillary Clinton became the frontrunner and de facto Democratic nominee for president. The new grandmother had yet to make a decision on the race despite several groups and influential politicians drafting her for the race. The former first lady, U.S. senator, secretary of state and 2008 Presidential candidate said she would make a decision in early 2015.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who also ran for president in 2008, is considering a 2016 run. Huckabee has done well financially as a radio and television personality. By year’s end, he was laying the foundation to at least test another presidential campaign.
Editor’s note: This week’s Talk Business & Politics’ roundtable included Jason Tolbert, Janelle Lilley and Steve Brawner discussing several of these big political stories. Watch the conversation in the video below.