Calling public service a “sacred trust,” new Arkansas Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, urged senators to free the Legislature from the “stain of corruption.”
“We’re all here with the same goal – to do the work that is necessary to improve the lives of all Arkansans,” Hendren said in his speech in the Senate chamber on Monday (Jan. 14), during the first day of the 2019 Arkansas General Assembly.
“Unfortunately, the work the Legislature is charged with doing has been overshadowed for several years by mistakes, misdeeds, corruption, and even illegal actions by a small, but not negligible, group of our former colleagues. These activities were actions of greed, dishonesty and selfishness. The behavior was a betrayal of their duty to their constituents, a betrayal to their oath of office, and a betrayal to the colleagues of the institution of the Arkansas Senate,” he said.
Hendren’s remarks came three days after former Sen. Gilbert Baker, R-Conway, became the seventh former legislator facing ethics related charges in recent years. Five have been convicted or pleaded guilty, and two are in prison. Another, former Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, has been indicted.
“Let us begin this session of the General Assembly today with a determination that the culture of greed and corruption is over,” Hendren said. “We will not participate in it, we will not ignore it, and we will not tolerate those who do.”
Hendren said lobbyists, business interests and others around the Senate also would be held accountable for unethical behavior.
He warned newly elected legislators that their real and perceived misdeeds would be “the shiny objects that garner massive media attention. In fact, we have some organizations, on the left and the right, that are obsessed with feeding the hatred that many have for those in public service. They would have you believe that the Legislature is a wholly corrupt institution run by corrupt, evil people. … The truth is that we have members in this body that are some of the finest people I’ve ever known.”
Hendren specifically thanked Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, who is chairing a newly formed ethics committee, and Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, for taking a bipartisan approach to ethics reform. He thanked members for deciding to livestream the Senate chamber and committee meetings this year.
Hendren spoke to a Senate where his Republican Party holds a 26-9 advantage over Democrats. It featured seven members who were not in the chamber when legislators met in their fiscal session in 2018. New senators include Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, elected in a special election in 2018, who participated while holding her daughter, Everly.
Other new senators are Sens. James Sturch, R-Batesville; Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith; Kim Hammer, R-Benton; Bob Ballinger, R-Berryville; Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville; and Mark Johnson, R-Little Rock. All but Davis and Johnson were former members of the House of Representatives.
Also present in a wheelchair was Sen. Ronald Caldwell, R-Wynne, who suffered a broken pelvis in a horse riding accident Dec. 17. Hendren acknowledged Caldwell in his remarks.
Hendren’s grandson, Samuel, led the opening prayer, asking for his “Papi” to be a good leader. Hendren’s granddaughter, Natalie, led the Pledge of Allegiance.