Pragmatic approach: Senate President Jim Hendren & Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd lead the 92nd General Assembly

by John Brummett (jbrummett@arkansasonline.com) 315 views 

(Left) Senate President Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, and Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado.

Editor’s note: The author of this article is a regular columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The article appears in the newest edition of Talk Business & Politics State of the State 2019 magazine.

It’s 10 days before the start of a legislative session they will lead.

Jim Hendren and Matthew Shepherd are sitting for a joint interview at the request of a reporter who asks if that’s how they intend to operate – as a team — for the next 70 or 80 days.

Will they seek to function as a seamless leadership unit with Gov. Asa Hutchinson? Will the point be to enact a consensus agenda of pragmatic conservatism while trying to keep the session out of any Washington-style ditches?

The short answer is yes.

They both confess to being pragmatists, favoring that descriptive over moderate, which would mean they aren’t conservative, which they most certainly are and must remain to succeed in this age in Arkansas.

They both acknowledge being all-in for the governor, who, in one case, Hendren’s, is a blood relative, an uncle.

They agree they want to continue the practice of the first two Hutchinson sessions when Jonathan Dismang, the Senate president pro tempore, and Jeremy Gillam, the House speaker, worked closely with each other and with Hutchinson.

Hendren, from Benton County and the incoming president pro tempore of the Senate, says he has occasional disagreements with his uncle and doubts that anyone is more candid than he in expressing differences privately. Pressed for specifics, he mentions something about a physical therapy issue and the timing for the phase-in of the latest round of income tax cuts that he helped formulate in the governor’s behalf as a legislative task force co-chairman.

But, yes, he says, he and Shepherd meet regularly for breakfast – Waffle House when Hendren picks and Chick-fil-A when Shepherd chooses – and they meet together from time to time with Hutchinson and key staff members.

“What persuaded me to try to come back down here was when [Sen.] Cecile Bledsoe told me the Republicans were going to take over and would need to demonstrate that they could govern,” Hendren, a former House member returned to the Senate after hiatus, says. “I saw a new and important challenge.”

A bit of a flame-throwing conservative as a House member in a less-polarized and less-angry time, Hendren has become as a Senate leader a champion of Medicaid expansion and a proud good friend of state Sen. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock, the liberal lion of the Legislature.

That he was an extreme conservative in the House and now is a leadership pragmatist in the Senate says a little about him, a little about his family obligation to the governor and perhaps more than anything about how the state’s political axis has zoomed so far to the right to leave his stationary self somewhere near the improbable middle.

It’s not that Hendren left the conservative movement, but that the conservative movement came through like a tornado and left him and his uncle looking positively establishmentarian.

He and Shepherd say the responsibility to govern makes entirely different demands than being in a legislative minority. Shepherd mentions that not many people have experienced that transformation and the new imperative. He and Hendren are among the few to straddle serving in the outsider Republican caucus and then, upon the right-wing revolution as completed in 2014, adapting to the new culture of leadership responsibility.

For their shared general political outlook, these men are hardly alike.

Hendren’s background is in bedrock Benton County conservatism; as an Air Force fighter pilot with all the acknowledged ego thereof; as a colonel in the Arkansas Air National Guard whose adult-long military service consumes and defines him, and in the plastics manufacturing business in Gravette.

Shepherd’s is in Union County prominence and the law and in pre-Tea Party establishment Republicanism.

Hendren’s dad, Kim, was a longtime blustery and irascibly independently conservative Republican legislator. Shepherd is a lawyer like his dad, Bobby, who sits as a judge on the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, where he is becoming known for favoring tight restrictions on Roe v Wade.

Hendren uses Twitter with Trumpian regularity and can happily spend much of a day engaged in snarky public debate with, say, a newspaper columnist. Shepherd says he tweets, too, but this way: “I’ll type out something and ask my wife if she thinks it’s OK to put it out there, and she’ll say, ‘You mean is it OK that you’re wishing someone a happy birthday?’’’

Shepherd admits to having been called “deliberate,” which resembles cautious and which he explains as simply being a well-trained lawyer. He says some of his colleagues have found off-putting his initial unwillingness to commit to their legislation even if it appears to be a simple issue that he’d readily embrace. That’s because he has a lawyer’s habit of reading fine print and looking first to see what may be on the other side of a question – because there always will be another side, or two, or more.

He quoted Bob Compton, his lawyering mentor in El Dorado, as saying he usually wanted his client to give a quick deposition in a lawsuit, so he could see early how his client held up and what the other side had.

The difference in style has come up constructively on an issue Hendren and Shepherd are interested in advancing under the joint aegis of their leadership in this session. It’s ethics reform, because, as Shepherd put it, whatever the session produces on the three big issues – tax cuts, government reorganization and a highway program – will be undercut by the culture of corruption raging around the Legislature unless legislators demonstrate a credible commitment to more honorable behavior.

Both men stress, of course, that the bad apples were few; that most of their colleagues are fine men and women. They agree that no law will stop the brazen corruption evidenced in the recent spate of indictments, guilty pleas and convictions – an ignominious episode for which indictments and embarrassments are not yet quite finished, most think.

But they say it’s the stench and appearance of pervasively smug insider self-interest that must be overcome.

Hendren says Shepherd has been helpful on drafts of ethics reform legislation by reading as a lawyer and warning of unintended consequences on what can be more complex than simply behaving properly and making legislative relationships more transparent.

Most everyone agrees that a legislator who is a private lawyer should not, during a session, hire out for a retainer from an active lobbyist whose clients the legislator in turn assists on public policy issues. But lawyers and their private partners shouldn’t have to disclose all clients, since apolitical clients have proprietary interests and require confidentiality. Similarly, a businessman like Hendren shouldn’t have to disclose all the suppliers or customers with which his business is affiliated. Those firms invited and warrant no public glare by their pre-existing private business relationships.

It’s easy to preach ethics, as Hendren knows. It’s not easy, as Shepherd knows and as Hendren has been learning, to write an ethics law to prohibit a particular circumstance without blending unfairly into innocent circumstances.

Hendren’s Senate already has adopted new rules of its own and a new internal ethics regulation system. But, when he talks these days of ethics, Hendren tends to cite first, and more proudly, that the Senate is now getting wired for online streaming of its committee meetings and floor sessions.

The House implemented that reform years ago. The Senate, more reserved and traditional by heritage, had resisted. But, for this session and for the first time, mildly proficient Internet users should be able to find a schedule of Senate committee meetings with agendas and surf their way to watching those meetings.

Shepherd said the public advantage of streaming is that a public roll call can tell you very little and that the public can discern nothing at all if only a voice vote is taken. But the discerning viewer can learn much by observing members’ actions and interactions.

With streaming available, the practice of lobbyists lurking behind senators to whisper something — instructions, one has always assumed — ought to be hampered, at least.

Senate committee meetings conceivably could be more instructive to online viewers than House committee meetings, owing to the smaller size of the Senate committees and the intimacy of their meeting rooms.

As to the major Hutchinson-driven agenda, Hendren and Shepherd seem to expect enactment of legislation tied to the governor’s proposed reorganization of government as well as of a three-year reduction in the top income tax rate to 5.9 percent.

Hendren seems a tad concerned that the proposed three-year phasedown of tax rates to 2 percent, 4 percent and 5.9 percent means an actually higher rate for some levels of income. But he stresses that 90 percent of taxpayers would get lower effective tax rates and that no one would actually pay higher taxes because of the vastly expanded standard deduction — although, for that to be certain, some as-yet unwritten provision is needed for persons, probably not many, with their incomes subjected to a higher effective rate under the 2/4/5.9 structure and who itemize deductions.

Still, the mild procedural concern is that, by the possibility of a rate increase on some levels of income in the wholesale rearrangement of tax brackets, a three-fourths majority vote presumably will be required.

As bitter fights over Medicaid expansion appropriations have proven in recent sessions, a three-fourths majority can be a strenuous challenge. But neither Hendren nor Shepherd expresses particular worry that, should a federal judge in Washington invalidate by spring the state’s work requirement for the Medicaid expansion program called Arkansas Works, as is possible, the Medicaid expansion appropriation would be newly in trouble this go-round.

“I don’t pick up any sentiment to shut down the Medicaid program or go home without a Human Services budget,” Hendren says. He also says he dismisses out of hand the idea of passing the Medicaid expansion appropriation uncommonly early before the federal judge might make trouble.

That leaves highway funding. When legislative observers say this could be a hard session, they may be talking about that.

Both Hendren and Shepherd say it’s clear their memberships believe it is time to do something less than piecemeal on putting more state money into highways. But, beyond that, they hear and offer only uncertain ideas.

Shepherd says legislators will want to refer to the voters any major tax increase, but he maintains that, before doing that, legislators ought to take good-faith responsibility for raising some money. He mentions his personal receptiveness to the long-controversial idea of diverting to special highway uses some of the general revenue generated from sales taxes on the sale of automotive parts and supplies.

The only problem with that is that the session also will reduce the general fund with the income tax decrease while general needs and demands – like schools, like prisons, like Medicaid – aren’t going anywhere.

Hendren says the highway program ought to be accompanied by new transparency by the state Highway and Transportation Department in its road-selection process and cost overruns or delays. He also throws out a couple of ideas – that Arkansas adopt the practice of other states of indexing its motor fuel tax rate to inflation or some measure of rising highway construction and maintenance costs, and that any sales tax program likely to be referred to the voters could limit the proceeds to pay-as-you-go usage rather than to bonded indebtedness that, while compiling a useful big pot of money early, diverts some of that money from pavement to interest.

The toughness of the issue is grounded in the contemporary conservative aversion to anything smacking of a tax increase, even one that legislators don’t embrace themselves but merely give the voters the free choice to enact.

At least one modern-era Northwest Arkansas Republican legislator has been beaten through the work of arch-conservative organizations resentful of his voting merely to let the voters have a say on a highway tax increase that they strongly endorsed.

“You said in your question that you had no idea how the highway program might turn out,” Hendren says. “Right now, I think that goes for everybody.”

For all the shared-interest teamwork of a governor, Senate president pro tempore and House speaker – and for all their careful nursing of consensus toward a pragmatic conservative agenda, and in spite of the strong odds of success for the governor’s main proposals — an Arkansas legislative session will always defy scripting.

Guns, abortion, gay rights, bathroom usage, religious rights, or something we haven’t thought of yet … something socially or culturally incendiary seems ever to arise to bring the Washington-style ditch as close as those concrete barriers on narrowed roadways during highway projects that we might soon be seeing more of.

Above all else, Hendren and Shepherd want to be good drivers, with Hendren steering straight and Shepherd tapping the brake from time to time.

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