Tuesday, January 13, 2015

TOP STORY >> Lawmakers set agenda for session

Leader senior staff writer

Asa Hutchinson, the state’s 46th governor, took the oath of office officially Tuesday morning before a joint session of the General Assembly and again at about 12:15 p.m. in a sunny but freezing public ceremony on the steps of the state Capitol, promising “A New Day in Arkansas.”

Hutchinson has promised the “three Ps” would be his top priorities — paycheck tax cuts, private option and prisons.”

$300 TAX CUTS?

Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Beebe) — sworn in Monday as the Senate president pro tempore — and House Speaker Jeremy Gillam (R-Judsonia), also sworn in Monday, have said they await the governor’s guidance, but that $100 million in middle-class tax cuts is the top priority.

Hutchinson has said his proposal would cut taxes as much as $300 a year for Arkansans earning between $20,400 and $75,000 a year, by lowering the tax rate by 1 percent. The governor has said he wants the tax cuts before submitting his budget plan and considering prisons and private option.

Reducing revenues by $100 million a year may make it more likely that private option survives in some significant form since, without it, the state would lose another $100 million in revenues, this time from the federal government.

So, unless Hutchinson and the General Assembly are “starve-the-beast” Republicans, willing to shrink government by shrinking services and abandoning more than 200,000 working poor Arkansans who receive health insurance through private option, many think it’s in line for a tune up, even an overhaul, but not bound for the scrap yard.

Gillam said the first two days of the session were off to a great start.

He said he believed there would be a great deal of support for the governor’s proposed middle class tax cut, “once we see how the math will work out.

“It’s too soon to tell on private option,” he said. The governor will make his direction known later this month.

Asked if passage of a $100 million tax cut would make reauthorization of private option more likely, Gillam said, “I think there’s a lot of folks applying conventional wisdom, but have yet to see how the mathematical equation will play out.”

Sworn in as president pro tempore, Dismang said he would work as a facilitator to make everyone successful. Issues other than private option may be divisive, he said, but senators need to recognize each is doing the best they can for their constituents.


“We are going to protect this institution and do the very best we can for the people of Arkansas,” he said.

Asked about the future of private option, if the governor doesn’t support reauthorization, Dismang said, “If he doesn’t support it, it may be very difficult to get beyond that.”

Dismang’s son, 5-year-old Sawyer, led the prayer. His other son, Cade, led the body in the Pledge of Allegiance. His wife, Mandy, and his parents were also at the ceremony.

Dismang appointed Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) and Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot) as assistant presidents pro tempore.


Camille Bennett (D-Lonoke) was among area representatives sworn into their first terms on Monday.

“I’ve been really impressed with leadership of the House,” she said. “The speaker is doing all he can to reach out.

“I’m concerned about the tax cuts. But, until we know what our budget is, it’s hard to make tax cuts the first matter of business and then figure out if we can pay bills.”

Bennett, a lawyer, was appointed to the judiciary and the state agencies committees and also the House management committee.

Although Republicans control the House, the Senate and the governor’s seat for the first time in more than 100 years, Democrats won’t be left powerless, Bennett said. “Anything financial or fiscal will require a super majority — 75 percent — and that’s not possible without some help from Democratic lawmakers.”

Bob Johnson (D-Jackson-ville) says he’s optimistic. He said the governor “wants to cut taxes for the middle class, but he doesn’t want to cut services. He wants to trim the fat.”

Johnson is assigned to the Transportation Committee, the veteran’s affairs and elderly committee and was appointed to the retirement and social security subcommittee. “The Highway Department is now my best friend,” he joked.


Karilyn Brown (R-Sherwood) said events were very exciting and moving. “We’ve got a Republican majority, including all constitutional officers. That’s a phenomenal situation…an opportunity to prove that conservative principles work. She said Hutchinson’s speech was “delightful, conciliatory” and reached out to encourage everyone to work together.

Brown is on the House transportation committee, the children, youth, aging and military affairs committee and governmental affairs committee. “It feels like a very good fit,” she said. Brown has been “looking into transportation issues for years” and minored in urban planning and design.


She said she’s not sure that bike and walking paths are the best use for transportation money.

Donnie Copeland (R-North Little Rock) said he’s waiting to hear what the governor’s plans are. “I think the private option needs to go away in a way in which it doesn’t cause undue harm to those trying to move (forward.) It has to be done in a very judicious way.

“People are asking for something,” he said. “The governor’s going to respond. We’re 47th and 48th in a lot of categories. Incremental change is not acceptable.”

Copeland is assigned to the judiciary committee, city, county and local government committee and the joint legislative council.

Tim Lemons (R-Cabot) could not be reached for comment.