After officially adjourning the 91st General Assembly 2018 fiscal session at the State Capitol, House members on Monday (March 12) selected Rep. Matthew Shepherd of El Dorado as the Speaker-designate of the House of Representatives.
Shepherd will officially assume his position at the beginning of the 92nd General Assembly in January. He was selected with 57 votes in a secret ballot against Rep. Andy Davis, a third term Republican lawmaker from District 31 that represents parts of Pulaski and Saline counties.
Shepherd will replace Rep. Jeremy Gilliam, R-Judsonia, who has served as two terms in the speaker’s post.
In a speech before 98 House members attending the specially-called House Caucus meeting, Shepherd told his fellow legislators he would provide servant and ethical leadership as several former House colleagues he said had “put a stain” on the Arkansas General Assembly are now facing federal prosecution for bribery and other charges.
“In all things, I will speak up for the House and the institution of the House,” said the Republican lawmaker from South Arkansas.
Shepherd, a native of El Dorado, joined the legislature in 2011 as a representative for District 6, which includes parts of Union County. His first leadership post came in the 89th General Assembly, when he chaired the House committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development.
More recently, he is serving his second term as chair of the influential House Judiciary Committee. He continues to serve on the House Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development Committee, as well as the Joint Budget Committee, the Joint Committee on Energy and the Small Business and Economic Development Permanent subcommittee.
UPDATED INFO: Meeting with reporters after the House vote with Shepherd at his side, House Speaker Gillam said he believes the Union County lawmaker will be an excellent leader after he steps down at the year’s end.
“He has done, I think, an exemplary job of chairing the committees he has been entrusted with and I think … the ship will be in good hands as I depart, and I think Rep. Shepherd will do a fantastic job as speaker,” said Gillam.
Shepherd told reporters he was humbled his fellow lawmakers had chosen him over Davis, who received 41 votes. He said he hopes to live up to the body’s lofty expectations set by Gillam and looks forward to working with Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Senate leaders to continue to move Arkansas forward.
Quizzed about the controversial rules changes under Gillam that gives future House speakers the power to appoint committee members, Shepherd said the issue was a topic of discussion among fellow House members in his campaign for the Speaker’s post. Yet, he was noncommittal on making any changes immediately.
“Obviously, I think one of the topics that will be discussed as I move forward is the rule change in regards to committee selection,” he said. “What I’ve told members is I want to determine what the consensus of the House is.”
Shepherd, a practicing attorney, said he will employ an open-door policy as he works with Gillam in learning about his responsibilities and setting priorities for the 2019 legislative session. He said he also wants to work with individual House members in both parties to help them become effective lawmakers for the state and their own districts.
“I think it is important for the Speaker to provide that strong leadership and set a high standard of conduct in the House,” he said. “I think members are interested in a Speaker who is going to help them to be effective and help to involve them in varying roles in the House and help them to broaden their participation … in terms of committee assignments and other opportunities.”
The future House leader also spoke about the broadening federal investigation that has overshadowed the General Assembly for several months as scrutiny continues to heighten around state lawmakers and their handling of General Improvement Funds (GIF).
In early February, former Rep. Eddie Wayne Cooper, D-Melbourne, pleaded guilty in federal court for his role in a conspiracy to embezzle more than $4 million from a Springfield, Mo.-based health care charity. Cooper’s guilty plea came only weeks after Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud, one count of money laundering and one count of bank fraud, with part of the activity including use of GIF funds.
General Improvement Funds were also at the root of another investigation a year ago involving former Sen. Jon Woods and former Rep. Micah Neal, both Republicans from Springdale. Neal confessed to a kickback scheme involving GIF money, while Woods is fighting the charges.
Shepherd said there is still concern in the Legislature about the ongoing federal probe, saying lawmakers will have to continue to build trust with voters because of a few lawmakers who chose to denigrate the body.
“In light of all that has happened over the past year, that is obviously something that … has been a stain on the General Assembly,” he said. “It is important for us to set a high standard of conduct to try and rebuild the public trust and confidence in the institution. … This is a great institution and there’s so many great people, and it’s unfortunate that a few can tarnish the reputations of so many. But that’s where we find ourselves.”
Shepherd said he will continue to work with Gillam between now and 2019 to understand better his roles and responsibilities as House leader. The Republican lawmaker is up for election in his south Arkansas district, where no challenger filed to run against him. He and his wife, Alie, have three children.
SENATE ACTION, SPECIAL SESSION CALL
The Senate on Monday adjourned without taking a vote on a new president pro tempore. Two weeks ago, the Senate Republican Caucus nominated Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, to serve in the post over Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana. Once the full Senate takes up the vote, it will only take a simple majority of the entire body that has 23 Republicans and 9 Democrats.
Special elections for three seats vacated by Republican senators in late 2017 will be held on May 22. In State Senate District 16, Republicans Breanne Davis and Robert (Bob) Bailey will meet in a run-off on March 23. The winner will meet Democrat Teresa Gallegos in a May special general election for the seat vacated by the death of former State Sen. Greg Standridge, R-Russellville.
In State Senate District 29, Ricky Hill defeated Jim Coy in the GOP primary by a 1,403-1,079 margin. Hill will square off against Democrat Steven McNeely on May 22. The Senate seat was vacated by State Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, who took a position in the President Donald Trump administration. There will be another special election to fill a third State Senate seat later this year to fill Files’ seat.
Gov. Hutchinson is expected to call both chambers back to the State Capitol for a special session to consider a host of draft bills that need immediate consideration, including legislation to regulate so-called pharmacy benefit managers, or PBMs, which act as middlemen between insurance companies and pharmacies.
Before the Senate adjourned, President Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, read off a list of at least eight bills the legislature plans to take up in the brief three-day extraordinary session.