With firm GOP control of state government and a host of major policy issues to settle, legislative leaders say Republicans will be responsible for the success or failure of the 91st General Assembly.
“It’s our responsibility to govern,” said Speaker of the House Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, at a media Q&A sponsored by the Associated Press.
“Republicans have no excuses for not performing,” Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, said bluntly.
Gillam was representing House leadership, while Hendren, the Senate Majority Leader, spoke for Senate leadership. In the session that opens January 9th, the Arkansas House will have 76 Republicans and 24 Democrats and the Senate will have 26 Republicans and 9 Democrats.
The two legislative leaders said that uncertainty surrounding the Affordable Care Act and potential federal changes to the nation’s Medicaid program will make it difficult to budget and plan for the state’s health care needs.
Hendren said that it is likely that Arkansas Works, the Medicaid expansion program under ACA, will continue and he expects less resistance from legislative opponents. Lawmakers he’s spoken to on the Senate end said they don’t have the same desire to debate the issue again.
He also said he’d be surprised if the General Assembly has enough clarity before the end of the session from D.C. to make major changes to Arkansas Works. He foresees a special session later in the year once federal plans are clearer. Hendren added that if block grants come to the states allowing lawmakers to spend Medicaid money at the local level, it will be time for legislators to “put up or shut up.”
On tax cuts, Speaker Gillam there are many plans floating around the capitol beyond the governor’s call for a low-income tax cut and veterans’ tax cut. Some legislators want to go further with cuts, while some are resistant to doing any immediate tax cuts due to current lagging state revenues.
Gillam said there are members who think doing nothing at this time may be the best policy. “Members have mentioned that,” he said. “It’s not a dominant prevailing mood, but it’s in the mix.”
Other issues that lawmakers will grapple with during the session include medical marijuana, prison and sentencing reform, higher education funding, and referring constitutional amendments.