New faces, new priorities on tap for January legislative session

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 1,648 views 

I think a change would do you good.” — Singer/songwriter Sheryl Crow

There will be a few changes in the Arkansas legislature when lawmakers convene Jan. 9 for the 94th General Assembly.

More than one-quarter of the Arkansas House and Senate will be new faces. Term limits, redistricting, running for higher office, and mostly primary challenges led to the exodus of several longtime legislators, while others will move from the House to the Senate.

Beyond the legislature, Arkansas will get a makeover in its executive branch as Gov. Asa Hutchinson is term-limited. Gov.-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders will lead state government as the new chief executive officer. She will be the first female governor of Arkansas, the first child of a previous governor to hold the post, and her ascendancy will mark the first time the state has seen back-to-back Republican governors since the late 1860s during Reconstruction.

Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge switched roles, and Rep. Mark Lowery will be sworn in as Treasurer of State. Treasurer Dennis Milligan will be the new Auditor of State.

While all of this change will redefine issues and agendas, it wont impact the majority party in the state. After all of this years elections, Republicans held onto all of the statewide constitutional offices, federal offices, and increased their supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature.

Republicans will control 29 of 35 seats in the State Senate and 82 of 100 seats in the Arkansas House of Representatives.

Look for three overarching issues to define the 94th General Assembly when lawmakers convene in early 2023. They include education, public safety, and tax cuts.

Gov.-elect Sanders has declared education will be her top issue. Though short on specifics, she has mentioned often that expanding school choices for parents will be at the top of the list. This includes more options for parents to put their kids in public schools, private schools, home schools, or virtual offerings. It is still undecided how those expanded choices will be constructed. Lawmakers are discussing money per each public school child — roughly $7,000 in state funding annually — could follow those students to private, charter or home schools. Its unlikely to be a cash stipend, but more likely to be in some form of tax credit.

Teacher pay will be high on the priority list. Arkansas is among the worst in the region and country on teacher salaries. The minimum teacher salary in the state starts at $36,000. Surrounding states have been recruiting teachers and teacher candidates to move from Arkansas for higher pay.

With a biennial educational adequacy study now complete, lawmakers will have to hammer out how much they want to raise minimum and average salaries as well as what that price tag may cost. House and Senate studies are vastly different in the budgets they computed to fund teacher pay and other adequacy improvements.

Another huge education topic will be improving reading levels. Only 31% of Arkansas students can read at a 3rd grade level on time, according to state education statistics. Sanders wants this to be a high priority and is likely to direct more resources to teaching tutors, eliminating bureaucratic duties for teachers to allow them more teaching time, and invest in summer and after-school reading programs.

While the pandemic led to some of the lowest crime statistics in decades due to sheltering in place, the post-pandemic recovery has seen a huge spike in criminal incidents. Lawmakers will focus on a variety of solutions to address rising crime, including building a new state prison, reforming sentencing and parole standards, and recruiting more talent to law enforcement ranks.

For months, lawmakers and Gov. Hutchinson have been laying plans for more prison beds. There are several expansions of existing facilities being studied, but there seems to be consensus that a new state prison will have to be constructed to meet demand. County jails are backlogged with state prisoners and there have been several instances of the Emergency Powers Act being invoked to relieve state prison beds through early parole.

How large that new prison may be will be a contentious debate. While plans are underway for a 1,000 bed new prison, State Senate President-elect Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, said he thinks the state should add 3,000 new prison beds. The price tag will be in the hundreds of millions for construction and operation.

Reforming state sentencing and parole laws will be on the table in January also. There is a desire on the part of lawmakers to alter the early release parole program and force prisoners to serve more of their sentences. No concrete ideas have yet been presented and data is hard to find to solidify the areas where changes could be most preventative.

Other public safety concerns include improving pay for those in law enforcement at the local and state levels, so expect pay raises and higher minimum salaries to be set, and hopefully, funded for that to occur.

Again, Gov.-elect Sanders gave some campaign trail rhetoric to the topic of public safety, but was short on details with proposals. She has discussed more investment in mental health to curtail criminal activity that stems from those issues as well as more support for victims in the criminal justice process.

For the last eight years, the Arkansas legislature has steadily attacked the personal and corporate income tax rates. To date, Arkansas’ top personal income tax rate has dropped from 7% to 4.9%. The top corporate rate has been reduced from 5.9% to 5.3%.

Arkansas has benefited from a healthy economy earlier in the mid-2010s that helped grow general revenues. Though the pandemic substantially slowed economic activity worldwide, federal government support through the pandemic years has been wisely spent and saved by state lawmakers leaving Arkansas in a strong financial position. The state budget has $2.7 billion in reserves and savings for a potential economic catastrophe.

However, the good times may be headed for speed bumps. Finance officials have warned that Arkansas may feel the effects of a slight” national recession in 2023, but they have predicted a recovery in 2024. How that plays out with tax collections remains to be seen.

Legislative leaders and Gov.-elect Sanders have expressed their desire to continue tax cuts. There will be three factions represented in those debates. They include elected officials who want to stay on the steady course theyve been on with conservative tax cuts; those who want to pursue more aggressive tax cuts including a flat tax and/or elimination of the used car tax; and those who dont want more tax cuts until the dust settles.

Conventional wisdom suggests the largest percentage of votes is in the steady course” camp, but once in session, there are no guarantees what might play out.

Other issues will dominate days at the legislature, but when lawmakers finish their business in early April, as expected, the faces of education, public safety and taxes should look very different than in 2022.