The freshmen class of the 93rd Arkansas General Assembly has been at work for over a month. With a wintry weather break, Talk Business & Politics caught up with three new state legislators to gauge their impressions of their first 30-plus days in office.
The three freshmen lawmakers are Sen. Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett; Rep. Ashley Hudson, D-Little Rock; and Rep. Keith Brooks, R-Little Rock. Gilmore is a marketing and communications consultant; Hudson is an attorney; and Brooks is an insurance agency owner.
TB&P: What’s the first month in office been like?
Sen. Gilmore: From the first day and every day after, when I step in the chamber, I am reminded of the responsibility entrusted to me by my constituents, and I find it very humbling. At times, it is easy to get caught up in the process of the session, and it feels like you are being pulled in several directions at once, so I am intentional about taking time every evening to respond to emails, texts, and return calls from constituents or reach out to stakeholders. At the end of the day, you have to be focused on issues important to the district while also following legislation that has a significant impact on our state.
Rep. Hudson: It’s been a little wild. We’re definitely in a session like no other, so it’s created this really distilled experience.
Rep. Brooks: It’s pretty unique. Most experienced lawmakers have described it to me as unlike any other they have been a part of, so it’s obviously not the norm compared to most freshmen sessions. Certainly, there is a very steep learning curve and constant activity…whether that be addressing constituent needs, evaluating legislation, or just learning the day to day.
The adage – which I’ve always heard stepping into new experiences – is that it’s like drinking from a firehose. I would agree, but maybe more like drinking from a firehose while juggling flaming knives. All in all, I have really enjoyed the first month and am thankful for the opportunity to serve.
TB&P: You got an unexpected break from the legislature this week due to snow. What have you been doing in this interim?
Gilmore: I’ve been reaching out to local elected officials to make sure they have what they need during this unprecedented weather. The rolling blackouts and the uncertainty associated with the isolated power outages have been of concern to many of my constituents and I’ve been working to keep them updated. Additionally, the COVID pandemic continues to bring challenges and I’ve gotten calls from constituents that want the latest update on the newest guidance, concerns about vaccine shortage, or those still having issues with getting their unemployment assistance. While having a week off due to the weather has helped me catch up and engage with constituents, I know it will also bring its challenges when we get back in session.
Hudson: I’m always glad to have time with my kids, and since we never get snow this was the first time our kids were old enough to have fun with sledding and such. But on the other hand, it’s been a really hard week in Arkansas, so I’m not excited about the added hardship in the middle of an already hard year.
I’ve been working – I’m still practicing law – and also working with a lot of constituents dealing with PUA [pandemic unemployment assistance] issues in addition to weather related concerns – work, transportation, resources and the like.
I’m also doing remote school like most parents in Arkansas. I’m still convinced I’m a horrible teacher. Really grateful for my kids’ actual teachers!
Brooks: As a small business owner, breaks aren’t often the same as they might be for others, especially since I own an insurance agency. Weather catastrophes mean being on call ready to help my clients with recovering from potentially devastating events. So, we’ve been very busy dealing with all the challenges that come from a historic winter storm.
TB&P: With a month of experience under your belt, what do you think will be your top goals for the session?
Gilmore: My priories haven’t changed, although the month of experience may change my approach and give me better insight on how to achieve these goals. I am still focused on growing our economy in southeast Arkansas; making Arkansas more competitive with other states through lower taxes and removing barriers to get a job or do business; improving health outcomes and increasing access to healthcare; and ensuring we are protecting the constitutional rights of my constituents.
Hudson: My goal going into this was to be a practical and reasonable voice for west Little Rock and that hasn’t changed. I think an ongoing change, or evolution, in my legislative goals is the need for a closer look at our state’s infrastructure. We can look at this week’s weather as a once in a decade (or century) cold snap, but this winter weather plus COVID for the past year demonstrates that we can’t assume that Arkansas only has to deal with one big problem at a time – or ever. And we can deal with more than one issue – Arkansans can multi-task – and probably so can the legislature.
I saw someone post online in response to multiple news media saying we live in “unprecedented times” that they’d like to live in something a little more precedented. I get that. I think we all would.
I’d like to talk about bills involving education, infrastructure, energy, and safety in the last weeks of the session, but I’d like to do it with bills crafted to solve Arkansas problems and developed by Arkansas drafters. Not bills passed around through other state legislatures or developed by national lobby groups. I’m tired of that and based on my emails and calls, so are my constituents.
I’m planning to focus the rest of this session on Arkansas-based solutions, and I’m hopeful it’s a bipartisan effort. I think it will be. There are still good people out there trying to do the work.
Brooks: I don’t think it has changed that much from pre-session. I just have a better perspective as to what may or may not be accomplished. My top goals will be (1) working with my colleagues to advance HB1371 [Arkansas Child Academic Opportunity Scholarship and Grant Act] as I believe it will have a generational impact on educational opportunity in Arkansas; (2) working to ensure we have election integrity here in Arkansas and can guarantee our citizens have complete confidence in the outcome each cycle; and (3) helping us move out of the pandemic quickly, yet responsibly so that businesses and individuals can return to normalcy and ensure our economic progress as a state continues to be strong.