Senate President Bart Hester: More tax cuts, more FOIA changes to come

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 1,062 views 

Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs.

Senate President Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, said this week’s special session on tax cuts and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) won’t be the last time the state legislature takes up the two issues.

Appearing on this week’s edition of Talk Business & Politics and Capitol View, Hester said additional tax cuts will likely be contemplated in the April fiscal session.

“The governor campaigned the entire time on moving the income tax towards zero. That is the posture of the legislature as well, and our past behavior since the governor’s been here, and even including Governor Hutchinson, we continue to cut it down. I suspect you’ll continue to see the same behavior. It wouldn’t surprise me if we didn’t continue to address income taxes in the fiscal session, as long as the state’s revenue stays strong,” he said.

Arkansas lawmakers dropped the state’s top personal income tax rate from 4.7% to 4.4% and the state’s top corporate income tax rate from 5.1% to 4.8%. Legislators also provided a $150 one-time tax credit ($300 per family) to those making roughly $90,000 or less.

Hester didn’t say what the next tax cut rate option might be, but he emphasized it would be dependent on Arkansas’ revenue situation.

The 94th General Assembly’s first extraordinary session held last week centered largely on making changes to the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In law since 1967, it has been modified over the years for exemptions.

Gov. Sarah Sanders and Republican lawmakers originally pushed to change FOIA in the special session by exempting details related to the first family’s security detail; limiting the information available about the deliberations of officials at state agencies, recommendations about policy, and other governance matters; curtailing attorneys fees in FOIA cases; and adding a retroactivity clause to cover pending FOIA requests.

A broad coalition of conservatives and liberals resisted the effort causing lawmakers to pare the bill back significantly to security and travel information related to the Arkansas State Police’s efforts to protect the governor and other elected officials.

Hester, who was at the center of debate and met with groups in a contentious public forum, said he thought the debate was good for democracy.

“I’ll tell you, this has been one of the healthiest, really best weeks that I’ve been in the legislature that I can remember. The Senate body really worked well together. We listened to the people of Arkansas. We listened to the people, not only back from our districts by email and calling and texting us, but we listened to the people that came and spoke, and we made adjustments. I think it’s been a really healthy, good process for the state of Arkansas,” the Senate leader said.

Hester acknowledged that lawmakers will address changes to the FOIA in the future, although he’s not sure it will be in the fiscal session, another special session, or the 2025 regular session.

He said there will be a push to initially let Attorney General Tim Griffin’s FOIA working group sift through some potential changes to the law.

“As a legislature we’re going to lean heavily on Attorney General Tim Griffin’s working group. Hey, they’re fair, they’re really working hard through this, and when they give us some recommendations, then at that point, once we have those recommendations, we go in the governor’s office,” Hester said.

Griffin’s group is not holding public meetings, but Hester said after recommendations are suggested, there could be public discussion. Hester also said taxpayers should be assured that the legislative audit process will keep in check the governor from spending state resources for private or political purposes versus the duties of her office.

“I think you can just look right now at how often this governor has used the plane versus the past three or four governors and how often they’ve used the plane. She’s just simply not using it that often in comparison. And number two, the legislature has the ability through our audit to look at all those expenses. We can look at every detail that is shielded through FOIA, but every one of us through our audit process has the ability to look at those and make sure it was used appropriately,” he said.

When asked why citizens shouldn’t also have the same ability to look through that information, Hester said security concerns should pre-empt that privilege.

“I understand that, and all I can say is we believe that the governor’s security is paramount, but the people should know that the legislators that they elect and come down here, Democrat and Republican, will have access to that information through our audit process,” he said.

You can watch Hester’s full interview in the video below.