Legislative leaders wrap up special session, offer thoughts on January regular session

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 953 views 

With the recent special session behind them, legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle are sizing up issues for the next regular session of the Arkansas Legislature.

On the Sunday (Aug. 14) edition of Talk Business & Politics, Senate President Pro Tempore-elect Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, and House Minority Leader Rep. Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, shared their thoughts on the agendas expected to play out at the state capitol.

Hester said criminal justice reform will be a top priority for him as he eyes ways to reduce violent crime and repeat offenders.

“I would like to see us in Arkansas continue to address criminal justice. I think we need more prison beds in Arkansas. The fact that we don’t have enough state beds is backing up in our counties and causing problems. The number one responsibility of government is safety of the people. I think we need more prison beds.

“I think we need truth-in-sentencing. When we see a horrible headline that some guy has harmed a child (like that 10 year old we just talked about) and he got 60 years in prison. Well, in Arkansas, that might mean 10 years, really. So I think there needs to be truth-in-sentencing,” Hester said. “I think if the population really knows how many days people actually serve versus what they were sentenced, they’d be horrified. So I think we’re going to work on a lot of things on criminal justice.”

Hester added that Arkansas needs a new crime lab to function with more modern technology and to handle caseloads that are growing.

The next Senate leader also sees abortion returning in January as a subject to wrestle with in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade and returned policymaking to the states.

While Hester believes the state’s current policy that prohibits abortion except for the life of the mother is appropriate, he also sees a persuasive argument that there may be additional exemptions needed, such as a policy to address the situation of a nationally followed case involving a 10-year old Ohio girl who was raped and became pregnant.

“I think that is a horrible, horrible circumstance, and clearly we know that that does happen, but as a believer in Christ, I believe that every child was created in the image of our Lord and savior and therefore deserves protection. They deserve protection from the Bill of Rights and our Constitution. And at the end of the day, two wrongs don’t make a right. We shouldn’t punish a child for the sins of the father, but I think there’s a compelling argument say that a 10-year old, the life of the mother is compelling there. I’m open to that argument. I’m not convinced of it just yet,” he said.

Hester also expects improved teacher pay to be addressed in the regular session, but he cautioned there might be a larger debate on linking teacher salary increases to student performance.

“We’ve been working on a plan for a very long time. We’re four years into four-year plan of raising it $1,000 a year minimum. We know we’ve got to do a lot better than that, but coming in the next session, we’re got to be prepared with a huge surplus to take care of teachers in the right way, but also look at our overall education system on what needs to be changed to move Arkansas up the ladder rather than being 40th out of 50. We’ve got to do better.

“We want to pay good teachers doing a good job, a lot of money and teachers that aren’t doing a good job don’t need to make the same amount of money that great teachers make,” Hester said. “We want to encourage great teachers to come to Arkansas and work in Arkansas. So I think that’s going to be the mindset of me as I have an opportunity to lead the Senate,” Hester added.

(You can watch Hester’s full interview in the video at the bottom of this post.)

Rep. Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, pushed hard to get teacher pay added to the special session agenda. The governor didn’t include it and the session adjourned before a motion could be made to consider the addendum of teacher salary increases. Still, McCullough expects the issue to be a dominant one in the January regular session.

“Well, we were encouraged when the governor first talked about putting it on his call. And so of course that got everyone interested. Teachers had some hope that this was an opportunity to give them a raise now and not wait,” said McCullough, a 33-year veteran teacher. “I don’t believe anyone’s against teachers. I don’t believe anyone up there’s against teachers, but we need to be for teachers and that needs to be urgent… I feel like if adequacy could get us where we’re going, we would already be there. And so I think we just, we have to do more.”

McCullough hasn’t heard enough from Republican gubernatorial nominee Sarah Huckabee Sanders to know where her education priorities are, but she touted Democratic hopeful Chris Jones’ message.

“I know if it’s Chris Jones [as governor], I know that he has a great plan for educators and I’m hoping that will be a high priority that we can do something. Like I said today, education’s going to be important in the success of our state. It always has been, it always will be, and it has to be a priority” she said.

McCullough cited pressure from teachers and education supporters for making the issue of a pay a top priority that she expects will get addressed substantially in January.

“I do think that the pressure, this isn’t just coming from Democrats. This is coming from teachers all over the state, not just here in central Arkansas. I’m hearing from people all over the state. So I think that that pressure, the hope of there being some money for the raises along with adequacy study, I mean, I’m hoping the next governor, whoever he or she may be, I’m hoping the next governor will come in and that will be a priority,” McCullough said.

Other issues that will dominate her attention in the next regular session include other education issues such as charter schools and vouchers, domestic violence prevention and protection, abortion exemptions, mental health issues, and recreational economic development.

(You can watch McCullough’s full interview in the video below.)