The era of Sarah: Gov.-elect Sanders lays out education, criminal justice road map

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 2,718 views 

Look for fundamental, conservative changes to state policy in the areas of education and public safety, Gov.-elect Sarah Sanders said in a statewide interview that aired Sunday (Jan. 8) on Talk Business & Politics and Capitol View.

Sanders, who will be sworn in as the 47th governor of Arkansas on Tuesday, sat down with Talk Business & Politics Editor-in-Chief Roby Brock for an in-depth interview on her plans for the upcoming legislative session and her administration.

She will be the first female governor of Arkansas, the first child of a former governor to hold the office, and the first back-to-back Republican governor – following term-limited Gov. Asa Hutchinson – since Reconstruction. Sanders, 40, noted she will also be the youngest governor in the U.S. once she’s sworn in.

“I think all of the firsts are historic and amazing, and humbling and exciting. And it’s an amazing time, in a way, to be an Arkansan and get to be part of that,” she said. “But the history I’m hoping to make isn’t for anything on that list, but the things that I think we’re going to achieve for the state of Arkansas. I am very hopeful that we can do transformational things over the course of my time as governor.”

Education is priority number one for Sanders, and she plans to bring a comprehensive list of changes to the field that will certainly reflect a conservative philosophy. She outlined those overarching themes in her LEARNS campaign platform. School choice will be expanded under her watch and she expects there to be “culture wars” on the education battlefield that she will support, but Sanders also has goals that are likely to find bipartisan support, such as improving teacher pay and investing more into reading proficiency.

In 2022, only 30% of Arkansas’ fourth graders read at or above proficiency for their grade level, according to the NAEP, which produces the Nation’s Report Card. Roughly 58% of Arkansas students read at or above the basic level for 4th grade.

Arkansas ranks in the bottom 10 nationally and is the lowest scoring state in the South on reading proficiency. For comparison, Massachusetts, which ranks highest in the NAEP state profiles, showed students in the fourth grade reading at or above a proficient level of 43%, while 70% read at or above the basic level.

Improving this metric is a major focus for Sanders.

“There are several things that I think we can do in this space. One is expanding access to Pre-K across the state. Making sure that more kids have a foundation at an earlier age helps put them on a better pathway long term. I also think providing things and working with hard-hit schools in some of the more low-income areas [of Arkansas], providing reading coaches and things like that. I saw firsthand the difference that it makes to have somebody who is trained in the science of reading and understands what to look for, how to correct it and putting that kid on a pathway long-term,” she said. “So there are some things that are big and are going to take a bit more of a lift, and then there are some things that are smaller. Making sure our teachers have the resources and training they need to be successful is a big part of that puzzle.”

Sanders suggests that the money to accomplish this goal already exists in current education funding. She’s a believer that Arkansas is not spending its education dollars as efficiently as it could.

“We’re already spending, 54% of our state budget goes to education. We should demand better results with the money that we’re spending. We cannot continue to pour money into programs that aren’t delivering,” Sanders said.

School choice – or parental choice, education savings accounts, vouchers – or whatever you choose to call it, will be another area of fundamental change. Sanders wants parents to have more choices and abilities to put their children in learning environments whether they are public, private, or home school options.

“We have to make sure that parents have a lot more power about deciding how and where their child is best educated,” she said. While mentioning education savings accounts, Sanders said a final plan will have to be negotiated with the legislature.

Arkansas’ foundation funding for students in public schools is roughly $7,000, though overall per pupil funding from the state is closer to $11,000. When pressed if she supports public school funding to follow students to other options – including private and home school settings – Sanders said, “I’m not opposed to parents having the ability to spend their taxpayer dollars on the best education possible for their kids.”

The incoming governor expects legislation to be introduced that would be described by many as part of the “culture wars” in education. In Arkansas and other states, there are examples of legislation affecting transgender students, “woke” policies, critical race theory, and restrictions on discussing subjects such as gay marriage.

In Florida, the state her Education Secretary nominee Jacob Oliva is leaving, Gov. Ron DeSantis passed a Parental Bill of Education Rights. Critics of the measure dubbed it the “Don’t Say Gay” law because it contains language to prevent the “instruction” or “discussion” of sexual orientation and gender identity at certain grade levels and in an “age-appropriate” way. The vagueness of the law has called into question how teachers could handle teaching history or questions raised in class about sexual orientation.

Sanders said she would have to consider individual bills, but if one similar to the controversial Florida law came to her desk, she would sign it.

“That piece of legislation, I would sign. I’ve already said publicly that I would. I obviously disagree with the way that they’ve characterized it since it doesn’t say that [‘don’t say gay’] anywhere in the legislation,” she said. “But anytime, I think, we have an opportunity as a government to do our part in protecting kids, we need to take advantage of that and do what we can to make sure that we are doing everything within our power to protect the young people in Arkansas.”

Sanders expects to offer comprehensive changes to tackling crime and public safety. She said solving the rising crime problem in Arkansas will involve more capacity, longer sentences, and rehabilitation, which could include workforce skills and mental health services.

State lawmakers and Gov. Hutchinson have already started the process of building a new state prison to accommodate up to 1,000 prisoners. State Senate President Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, has indicated more or larger prison space – up to 3,000 prisoners – may be necessary.

Arkansas has more than 17,000 prisoners in its oversight, according to Sanders, with capacity limited to just 16,000. She said she is already working on a comprehensive plan – with support from legislators and incoming Attorney General Tim Griffin – to improve the situation. She said it would be released soon.

Over the past three years, Arkansas has released more than 4,300 prisoners via early parole through the Emergency Powers Act, which allows the governor to ask the state parole board to expedite the parole process for prisoners within 12 months of already being eligible for parole.

“Would I love for that demand not to exist? Absolutely. I don’t think there is anybody that finds this to be a fun and exciting thing, but unfortunately, it’s the reality of where we are. We are at max capacity and we have to make sure that we can secure our communities,” she said.

There will be constraints while new prison beds are being constructed. She stopped short of sharing too many specifics in this area, but Sanders acknowledged that short-term solutions are being considered.

“I don’t want to let people out on the streets that need to be locked up. And so if that means that we have to use space in other places, in other states, then that may be something that we look at,” she said.

The state’s truth in sentencing law is another area where there will be major changes to policy. Sanders said holding criminals accountable for their actions needs reform.

“In addition to the capacity problem is making sure people are held accountable and that there is actually justice, and time is served that they are sentenced to in the state of Arkansas. That is not typically the case right now,” she said.

Sanders expects to follow a measured approach to reducing income taxes in Arkansas. Under Hutchinson and a supermajority of Republican legislators, the state’s top personal income tax rate has fallen from 7% to 4.9%. The corporate income tax rate is 5.3%.

The new governor isn’t offering a specific reduction timetable yet, although it remains a priority. She understands there will be legislators offering tax cuts or elimination at a pace that may be faster than she feels is prudent. Sanders said the speed with which taxes are cut is not her main concern.

“Look, as long as we can get there responsibly, speed does not determine whether or not it’s responsible. Making sure that we can pay for the programs and services that we need to pay for, that’s being responsible,” she said. “So if we are able to grow our economy, grow our revenue through increased tourism and things like that, then we can pass that on faster. Making sure that we have programs that are effective, efficient, modernizing our government, passing those savings on, it’s not going to be any one thing that allows us to cut taxes, it’s going to be a collection of things. And the faster we grow our economy, the faster we’re going to be able to phase out that state income tax.”

If she is successful in eliminating the personal income tax, Arkansas will lose a long-standing base of its general revenue funding and be more dependent on the more volatile sales tax for supporting essential services. Sanders thinks eliminating the income tax is crucial to long-term economic competitiveness.

“I think we’re at a point where we have Texas on one side, we have Tennessee on the other side. We have other states surrounding us that are moving in this direction. If Arkansas wants to be competitive, if we want our businesses that exist here to be able to grow and expand, if we want new business to come in, it’s not something we just want to do, it’s something that we’re going to have to do, is make sure that we are looking for ways to phase out that state income tax,” Sanders said. “I don’t think it’s something that happens overnight, but it is a goal that we have to work towards. And I do think it’s something we can get to if we get serious and focus on actually accomplishing it.”

In other news from the interview, Sanders said she is prepared to make her high-profile appointments to the Highway Commission and Public Service Commission when she takes office.

She also touched on the controversy of the last week in Congress, where U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., finally received enough votes to capture the Speakership on the 15th ballot. When asked who is the national voice for the GOP right now – McCarthy, former President Donald Trump, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell or someone else – Sanders said there is not a de facto national Republican leader.

“I think there are a lot of influential voices in the Republican Party and it can vary. I don’t think there is any one, singular leader. I think that happens when you don’t have a president in power from your party is that voice can come from a lot of different places,” she said. “I think the more important thing is figuring out how we bring those groups together and remember what we’re fighting for, remember who we’re fighting for, and start delivering on a lot of the things that most of us talked about.”

You can watch Sanders’ full interview in the video below.