House re-elects Gillam as speaker, sets committee leadership for 2017 session

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 185 views 

The Arkansas House of Representatives formally re-elected Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, 99-0, with him being the only one to abstain, to another term as House speaker Monday, and Gillam then appointed chairs and vice chairs of House committees.

The House has five standing “A” committees and five standing “B” committees. Chairs of the more important “A” committees are:
• Revenue and Taxation chair, Rep. Joe Jett, R-Success; vice chair, Rep. Joe Farrer, R-Austin

• Public Health, Welfare and Labor chair, Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage; vice chair, Rep. Deborah Ferguson, D-West Memphis

• Public Transportation chair, Rep. Mike Holcomb, R-Pine Bluff; vice chair, Rep. Marcus Richmond, R-Harvey, vice chair

• Education chair, Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs; vice chair, Rep. Charlotte Vining Douglas, R-Alma, vice chair

• Judiciary chair, Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado; vice chair, Rep. Dwight Tosh, R-Jonesboro

Three of the chairs – Jett, Wardlaw and Holcomb – have switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party in the past year-and-a-half. All of the “A” committees feature large Republican majorities except Revenue and Taxation, where Democrats engineered an 11-9 majority after the November elections until Jett switched parties in December. Jett was the committee’s previous chair.

Gillam told reporters afterward that the three former Democrats were not offered chairmanships in exchange for switching parties. He said Jett received praise for his previous chairmanship, Holcomb had been vice chair of Public Transportation in the last session, and Wardlaw is a four-time member of the Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.

House Minority Leader Michael John Gray, D-Augusta, said the selection of three former Democrats for chairmanships “was not unexpected. A couple of them for the last year, we knew that they probably were angling for a chairman position.” He said he would not address Gillam’s assertion that the party switch did not affect their selection and said Gillam has “a lot to navigate” among his Republican caucus with the selections.

“I think he left leadership in place who are leaders in their field, and as long as we all respect the  democratic process, then the chairmen are just a cog in the wheel,” he said.

Chairs of the five “B” committees are:
• Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative & Military Affairs chair, Rep. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren; vice chair, Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway

• Agriculture, Forestry & Economic Development chair, Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville; vice chair, Rep. David Hillman, R-Almyra

• City, County and Local Affairs chair, Rep. Tim Lemons, R-Cabot; vice chair, Fred Love, D-Little Rock

• Insurance & Commerce chair, Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville; vice chair, Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Springdale

• State Agencies and Governmental Affairs chair, Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville; vice chair, Rep. Jack Ladyman, R-Jonesboro

The fifth Arkansan to serve two terms as House speaker, Gillam expressed admiration for President Abraham Lincoln for his willingness to work with those who disagreed with him, even appointing them to his Cabinet. He encouraged legislators to work with each other in the same way, including those who defeated one of their bills, supported their opponent or criticized them on Twitter.

“Our forward-looking focus will sharpen each other as iron sharpens iron,” he said. “We assure a better future by not silencing some of the greatest minds in our state by refusing to consider their ideas. Our greatest accomplishments as a state have not been made because people always agreed. They were made because people listened.”

He pointed out that 100 years ago, Arkansas became the first Southern state to allow women to vote in party primaries, and two years later Arkansas became the 12th state to ratify the 19th Amendment allowing women to vote in general elections.

“Let us honor those who sat in these seats a century ago by showing Arkansas there is still nobility in public service,” he said.

Gray, the House minority leader, said the reference to Lincoln’s approach was “poignant.”

“I feel like there are a hundred of us on a team in there, and the opponent is the Senate,” he said with tongue in cheek.

In his speech, Gillam referred to Amendment 94, which was passed by voters in 2014 and, among its other provisions, modified the state’s term limits law by allowing legislators to serve up to 16 years in the House or Senate. He said the amendment offered “the opportunity to maximize the potential of our institutional knowledge. It is our responsibility to apply that knowledge to overcome the challenges that we face. Our branch of government can once again grow roots of stability.”

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has proposed a $50.5 million income tax cut for lower-income Arkansans and a tax exemption for military retirees. Gillam said afterward that various tax cuts considered by legislators will move from concept form to bill form in the next couple of weeks, but he doesn’t want the legislation to move too quickly. He said the legislation will advance “within a relatively, I think, responsible time frame within the session so that it doesn’t impact the discussion and things that are necessary for the budget, which is our big focus.”

Gillam said the House also would be patient regarding a package of ethics bills proposed by Democrats. He said he doesn’t believe a cloud is hanging over the House after former Rep. Micah Neal, R-Springdale, pleaded guilty last week to receiving kickbacks in exchange for directing general improvement funds (GIF) to recipients. He said he had not talked to members about how the plea might affect their approach to those GIF funds.

Regarding Arkansas Works, the program that uses federal dollars to purchase health insurance for more than 300,000 Arkansans, he said the state is “in a holding pattern, to a degree,” based on coming changes to health care at the federal level.

Among the other developments, Rep. Jeff Williams, R-Springdale, was elected chair of the freshman caucus.