Editor’s note: This feature story appears in Talk Business & Politics 2017 “State of the State Report,” which highlights major policy issues and offers an in-depth look at key Arkansas industries headed into the new year.
With myriad issues to tackle, the 91st General Assembly will get a crash-course on delegation of duties. It will take coalitions of effort to move major policy legislation through each chamber.
Conversely, some will champion causes near-and-dear to their constituencies in an effort to focus attention on hot-button issues. Often, these media-hyped bills detour from the meat-and-potato topics, which will anchor the capitol session, and add to legislative stress.
From voices of reason to stirring the pot to solving problems or following political dogma, these 20 state lawmakers are ones to watch in 2017.
Senate President Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, and Speaker of the House Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia
These two get an automatic bye into the “One to Watch” column due to the high-profile nature of their leadership positions. Add to the mix that Dismang and Gillam are serving their second terms as leaders of their respective chambers and you’ll understand that what they say and do will be prime indicators of consensus-building and occasional gubernatorial direction.
Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville
Ballinger is a smart lawyer, a good political navigator, and unafraid to be in the middle of battles on social issues and conservative policy. With an eye to the future, his session moves may indicate future leadership aspirations.
Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville
Collins will be active on business issues, health care policy and tax reform based on his past experience and current committee assignments. However, he’ll be known this session for his efforts to expand concealed carry on college campuses.
Rep. Andy Davis, R-Little Rock
Davis is another potential House leader of the future. His credentials are solidly conservative and he knows how to structure a compromise when needed versus standing ground and plowing through a tough vote.
Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff
Flowers should have a breakout session in 2017. She’s quietly effective behind the scenes in building relationships and sharing her perspectives from the Delta and the inner city. When she speaks, she’ll command respect and offer a voice that needs to be heard at the capitol.
Rep. Michael John Gray, D-Augusta
Vying to be the chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, Gray is the House Minority Leader. He’s used the platform to advocate for issues important to rural Arkansas not national social issues. He’ll be an oft-quoted critic of gubernatorial and GOP positions.
Rep. Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne
Gray was a leader in opposing the governor on his managed care plan and helped build a bipartisan coalition to block the proposal. She and her group will be on guard as the debate arises over health care reform and savings in this session.
Rep. Joe Jett, R-Success
Jett switched parties from Democrat to Republican after the November 2016 election cycle. His party pivot disrupted a Democratic majority on the House Revenue and Tax committee. He’ll be one to watch to see if he still sides with Democrats on key issues, adopts Republican positions, or functions in an unpredictable independent manner.
Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville
Leding, a left-of-center liberal, will mix it up with Republicans in committee, on the House floor, and in the media. Entering his fourth term, he’s learned how to pick his battles effectively and he’ll be a clarion voice for Democrats on a multitude of important issues.
Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley
Mayberry is returning to the House after sitting a term out. Staunchly pro-life, he’ll push the envelope on legislation that will stir controversy and headlines. He’s also been a reliable vote in the past on compromising and moderate policy debates.
Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock
Now a sophomore legislator, Tucker is a savvy, articulate attorney who can be persuasive with facts, logic, and debate. He’ll be in the middle of ethics and elections reform and an advocate for core Democratic principles such as investing more in public education.
Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock
Elliott is not the only Democratic senator capable of protecting the minority from the tyranny of the majority, but she engages the most. The liberal lioness often offers alternative views to stringent conservative positions in a passionate and powerful way.
Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana
Hickey did yeoman’s work on lottery reform in 2015 and he asserted independence on issues that would suggest he’s not a lapdog for the status quo. With a strong 2017 session, he’ll be a strong contender to lead the Senate someday.
Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs
Never one to run from controversy, Hester often is a provocateur of policy change. Defund War Memorial Stadium? Cut taxes by a greater margin? He may not win the battles, but in the war to shift to a more conservative government, he’s advanced the cause. Leadership courts him because they need him.
Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette
Hendren has done a lot of heavy lifting in the Senate with health care reform, tax cuts, and engaged problem-solving. Look for him to pursue new courses of policy debate in the 2017 session and look for him to lead on those issues.
Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock
Like Hendren, Hutchinson is a nephew of the governor and that adds a dimension of access and responsibility to his role. Hutchinson’s Judiciary committee will be active with prison and sentencing reform, constitutional questions, and hot potato topics. Expect his experience to steer unwanted legislation astray and desired legislation to the floor.
Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis
Ingram understands the State Senate as well as anyone. From rules to decorum to the power a senator can exert, he is expert at navigating the process. For Democrats, who are in the steep minority, he’ll keep them relevant at key times through his choice efforts.
Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View
Irvin will be active this session on major reforms involving the Department of Human Services. From foster care to health care to managed care and personnel issues, the administration would prefer to have Irvin in their corner versus fighting from the outside.
Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Bigelow
Love him or hate him – there seems to be little middle ground – Rapert will be seen, heard and felt in the 2017 session. He’ll offer an opinion on many subjects, speak up in a multitude of debates, and push the envelope on a variety of social issues including abortion, guns, religion and partisan politics. In the end, he’ll have more successes than failures.
Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock
Sanders will have a huge impact on what’s happening at the capitol. This session, you’ll eventually see his fingerprints on health care policy, prison and sentencing reform, tax cuts, and more. He’s developed a talent for working effectively behind the scenes with various groups and applying his conservative credentials in an original, thoughtful manner.
Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville
After a decade of legislative service, Teague is approaching “budget dean” status. He brings a nonpartisan approach to the perfunctory and detail-oriented task of preparing a state budget. It is among the most thankless, but all-important duties state lawmakers perform. Teague provides stability and institutional memory to the task.