Incoming Senate President Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, says he wants members to vote later this year to open up the Senate chamber and its committee meetings for live-streaming.
“I’ve been working for the last two or three months about some proposals for making the Senate itself more transparent by allowing people to see via live video feed what’s going on in the Senate and what’s going in our committee hearings,” Hendren said. “I’ve gotten some numbers back. I’m still not very satisfied with the cost because I’m still a conservative and spending a million dollars for 15 people to watch is kind of hard.”
“We’re looking for better alternatives, but we will have a proposal for the Senate to livestream our proceedings and make it clear to the people out there that we’re not going to hide anything, that they can see what’s going on in their Arkansas Senate, so I’m hoping to have that ready in August or September to present,” he said.
Hendren, a guest on this week’s edition of Talk Business & Politics, said that the ethics reforms enacted this week were just a start for what he hopes will be more efforts to improve accountability among the upper chamber.
“This is just a starting point. We’ve been very clear that we know there will be legislative changes necessary, there’ll be additional rules necessary, but there were also seven new items of prohibited conduct that have been defined where they weren’t prohibited before, they are prohibited now, and are cause for an ethics action against a member,” Hendren said.
Last week, the Arkansas State Senate adopted new rules for ethics after a number of members have either been convicted, admitted or accused of using their positions for money and influence. Some of the rules changes include the creation of an 8-member “Senate Select Committee” to define and govern chamber ethics; new conflict of interest rules that require stronger financial disclosure; restrictions on accepting benefits that may be considered conflicts of interest; and a restriction preventing a senator from knowingly seeking, accepting, using or granting public funds for a purpose other than that approved by state law.
Rep. Charles Blake, D-Little Rock, the newly elected House Minority Leader, also appeared on this week’s program. He said that Democrats in the House and Senate are showing unity in support of the earned income tax credit – one of several potential tax reform measures being studied by an interim committee.
“Our first priority is what we’ve been pushing for the last couple of sessions, and that’s a state earned income tax credit, making sure that we’re taking care of those working families — the super majority of our citizens here in our state — putting more dollars in their pockets, which then goes back into local economy. So that is our first priority,” Blake said.
Hendren, who co-chairs the bicameral, bipartisan Tax Reform and Relief Task Force reviewing state tax code, said lowering the top tax rate of 6.9% is a major concern for him.
“Most of the business community and those that are trying to recruit jobs and businesses to Arkansas will tell us that one of the biggest impediments is our top rate,” he said. “It clearly is something that has an impact on our ability to bring some good paying jobs to Arkansas.”
Both men also said that this week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling on internet taxes will factor into the tax reform task force’s discussion.
MEDICAL MARIJUANA, FAMILY SEPARATION
Blake and Hendren also discussed an Arkansas Supreme Court ruling this week that will allow licenses for medical marijuana cultivators to move forward.
They both said there could be consequences if medical marijuana is not for sale by the 2019 legislative session, nearly 3 years after voters approved the constitutional measure.
“If that happens, then we have failed the voters who had voted for this,” Blake said. “We do want the process to play out in a way that it’s designed to, but we have to get that medicine to the people who need it, and what’s really frustrating is that we have to expedite this process, but we need to make sure that the process is fair and transparent, and I would encourage the commission to go ahead and make sure that the license for dispensaries are issued, but take themselves out of it and make sure that we bring in someone with fair eyes.”
“You know, a lot of us who did not support that issue on the ballot also realized we had a duty to implement it, and we tried and we cast votes and did the best we could to set up the system to do that, but there’s no question, it’s been a mess,” Hendren said. “Unfortunately, the loser in that is the patients and the people who are waiting for those services, so I do think that if it’s still tied up in the courts and people are… We will look at some legislation to perhaps streamline it and make it happen sooner.”
Hendren and Blake opposed the use of Arkansas facilities for housing illegal immigrant families. The federal government is looking to place some refugees at the Little Rock Air Force Base and a settlement camp in Kelso, Arkansas.
Watch more of their full interview below.