Legislators from Northeast Arkansas occupy key committee posts

by George Jared ([email protected]) 506 views 

A state senator’s or representative’s influence during the legislative session can, in some measure, be related to the committee assignments he or she receives. Three Northeast Arkansas legislators – Sen. John Cooper, R-Jonesboro, Rep. Fran Cavenaugh, R-Walnut Ridge, and Rep. Monte Hodges, D-Blytheville – shared their thoughts about what committees they sit on and what potential legislation could come as the session progresses into Spring.

Cavenaugh, who is completing her second term in the legislature from House District 60 is the chair of the Joint Budget Committee Claims subcommittee and is on the Education Committee among other committee assignments. Improving the state’s education system and managing the state finances are two top priorities for Cavenaugh, she said.

“I’m on the committees I asked to be on … these are the committees I thought I could have the most impact,” she said.

Cavenaugh will not present any bills in the Education Committee this term, but says her role will still be important. She see herself as a “watch dog” who will try to weed out bad legislation, she said. There has been a long-term focus on the number of Arkansans with four-year college degrees, but that needs to change in some ways.

Vocations such as plumbing and electrical work are high paying and in significant demand, she said. High school students need to have a better understanding of how much these types of jobs pay, and the state needs to provide more ways for students to get into these fields, she said. Transparency in the budget process is another issue that Cavenaugh would like to tackle. Taxpayers need to have a better understanding of how and why their money is being spent, she said.

Cooper has been in the State Senate since he won a special election in 2014 to replace former State Sen. Paul Bookout in District 21. Cooper is the chairman of the Joint Budget Committee Personnel subcommittee and the Agriculture, Forestry & Economic Development Committee.

JBC-Personnel deals with all of the personnel requests from the various agencies, departments, and state funded organizations from around Arkansas, he said. For example, if a state funded university has experienced growth in a department, they might ask for more personnel to meet the need. So far in the session, the number of personnel requests has been low, Cooper said.

Another committee that has been light on activity this session has been the Agriculture Committee, he said. The committee has passed a few minor bills, including one that will slightly impact veterinarian technicians primarily in south Arkansas, but no major bills have come through, he said. Changes were made this session to allow for all medical marijuana bills to come through Agriculture, but nothing significant has moved.

“I’m actually surprised by the lack of activity,” he said noting that the committee has canceled several scheduled meetings at the beginning of the session due to a lack of an agenda.

That could change as the month of March unfolds, however. Cooper spoke with representatives from Arkansas Farm Bureau and there may be a few bills they may try to push. Nothing specific has been divulged. Cooper is the co-chairman of the Red Tape Reduction Task Force. The Task Force’s goal is to find ways to reduce regulations at the state level, he said.

Occupational licensing is one area that they’ve focused during this session, he said. A criminal background can sometimes automatically be disqualifying no matter what the offense was or how long ago it occurred, Cooper said. Licensing boards in many cases have no ability to waive disqualifying factors and that needs to change, he added.

One bill that was recently filed involved the Family Counselors Board. One of the licensing requirements was a year wait time for those seeking a license. The bill would change the requirement to be a set number of training and educational hours, meaning the person seeking the license could receive it quicker and start working faster, he said.

“We need to streamline these processes,” he said.

Hodges, who is serving in his fourth term as the House District 55 representative, serves as vice-chair of the Peer Review Subcommittee for the Joint Budget Committee. He also serves on the Revenue and Taxation Committee among his House committee assignments. He also sits on the City, County, and Local Affairs Committee and the former Blytheville alderman said its among his favorites.

“I thoroughly enjoy that committee,” he said. “Dealing with municipal issues … I feel like that is a good fit for me.”

Hodges voted against the recent tax cut that was signed into law by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in February. Hodges said he thinks the tax cut will eat into state finances at a time when money is needed to fund many projects and programs that Arkansans need.

As the session unfolds, Hodges said he expects a bill or bills that will try to tackle internet sales tax will be proposed. Highway funding will also dominate the session until it is resolved, and if any stand your ground bills are presented in committee, Hodges said he would fight those as well.

Peer Review allows legislators to examine how and why money is being spent in a certain way, Hodges said. It’s good for lawmakers to examine and question how and why money is being spent, he said. It allows for lawmakers to make more informed decisions during the allocation process, he added.