El Dorado’s Shepherd elected Arkansas House Speaker for third time

Bart Hester becomes Senate president pro tempore as both chambers start 2023 legislative session

By: and - January 9, 2023 6:45 pm
Arkansas state senators take the oath of office Monday afternoon at the state Capitol as they and their counterparts in the House of Representatives start the 94th General Assembly. (Photo by Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

Arkansas state senators take the oath of office Monday afternoon at the state Capitol as they and their counterparts in the House of Representatives start the 94th General Assembly. (Photo by Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

The Arkansas House gaveled into the 2023 legislative session on Monday with the swearing in of its members and the election of House Speaker Matthew Shepherd (R-El Dorado). 

Shepherd’s election to a third term means he will be the longest serving House speaker in state history.

Only one member, Hope Hendren Duke (R-Gravette) voted against Shepherd.

The 46-year-old attorney joked that he was grateful the House elected him on the first ballot instead of the 15th, alluding to the difficulties Republicans in the U.S. House had electing House Speaker Kevin McCarthy last week.

He said the Arkansas House prides itself on avoiding Washington D.C.-style politics. 

Arkansas House Speaker Rep. Matthew Shepherd (R-El Dorado)
Arkansas House Speaker Rep. Matthew Shepherd (R-El Dorado)

Speaking to reporters Monday, Shepherd said he believes the General Assembly’s priorities for the session align with Gov.-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ agenda. 

“I think it stands to reason that the governor-elect has a lot of say in what those priorities are,” Shepherd said. “What I see as being priorities seem to align in large part with what she has outlined: education, tax legislation and public safety. That’s not to mean that the Legislature or individual legislators don’t have other priorities that they’re working on.”

Legislation has yet to be filed or made public, and Sanders has talked broadly about legislative priorities so far. However, Shepherd said he wasn’t concerned about timing, and that lawmakers would work diligently to find consensus.

At the end of the day, I’m going to make decisions that I believe are in the best interest of the House, but more importantly, in the best interest of the people of Arkansas.

– Arkansas House Speaker Rep. Matthew Shepherd (R-El Dorado)

Also on Monday, Shepherd named the chairs and vice-chairs of legislative committees. His picks included two Democrats. Rep. Mark Perry (D-Jacksonville) will be the House vice-chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Retirement and Social Security Programs, and Rep. Milton Nicks Jr. (D-Marion) will be the vice-chairman of the Committee on City, County and Local Affairs. 

The selections were significant because last week a group of House Republicans sent Shepherd a letter requesting that no Democrats be named committee leaders.

Shepherd said Monday that he considers all communications from members and sees merit in including minority party members in leadership. 

“At the end of the day, I’m the speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives,” he said. “Now, I am a proud Republican, and I’ve been a Republican for a long time. I’ve been part of the minority here in the House. At the end of the day, I’m going to make decisions that I believe are in the best interest of the House, but more importantly, in the best interest of the people of Arkansas.”

In the opposite chamber, State Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) took over for Sen. Jimmy Hickey (R-Texarkana) as Senate President Pro Tempore.

Hester listed several legislative priorities in his speech accepting the nomination.

Arkansas Senate President Pro Tempore Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs)
Arkansas Senate President Pro Tempore Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs)

“Not one of us in this room is okay with a third of our students reading at grade level,” Hester said. “No one in this room is okay with violent repeat offenders walking our streets. No one in this room is okay with our jails being over capacity. No one in this room wants to pay any more taxes than they currently have to pay.”

Education agenda

 

Gov.-elect Sanders’ top priority is education, and she has said she plans to support an education package that covers a number of education policy issues, including literacy, teacher pay and school choice. 

Shepherd on Monday tapped Rep. Brian Evans (R-Cabot) to be the next chairman of the House Education Committee. The committee had long been led by Rep. Bruce Cozart (R-Hot Springs), who decided not to seek the post this session. 

Evans in an interview last month said the direction the session takes on education issues will begin to take shape once Sanders’ legislative package is unveiled.

Shepherd said he expects education legislation to begin taking shape as the session gets underway.

“There’s still stuff to be worked out, but I feel confident that we can find that consensus,” he said.

Hester said in an interview that he believes everyone in the legislature hopes to improve education in Arkansas even if they disagree on how to do it.

“What we know is doing what we’ve already been doing and giving more money to it is not a good plan,” he said. “It’s a failed plan.”

Arkansas lawmakers on the House and Senate education committees have said in interviews they expect the upcoming regular session to include proposals to expand the state’s current school-choice programs, which cater to a limited number of low-income families and individuals with disabilities.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock)
Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock)

The entire Legislature should keep in mind that providing equitable access to education is the state’s responsibility, said State Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock), the Senate Minority Whip and the vice chair of the Senate Education Committee.

“Our emphasis should be to make every school a school of choice, so that there are no winners and losers where kids are concerned,” Chesterfield said.

Other priorities

Sanders said while campaigning last year that she hopes to phase out the state’s income tax, which accounts for about 57% of the state’s budget.

Chesterfield said she disagrees with this idea.

“When you continue to reduce the income of the government, you continue to reduce the ability of the people to get those services that they need,” Chesterfield said.

Another of Sanders’ priorities is to work with the Legislature to submit a Medicaid work requirement to the federal government. Arkansas’ previous attempt to implement such a requirement cut 18,000 people from the program and was struck down by a federal judge in 2019.

Sanders has regularly said she believes Arkansans should not be “trapped in a lifetime of government dependency.” 

Hester said in an interview that he believes most Arkansans, regardless of political affiliation, see government assistance as something only for people who “are working or trying to work.”

“We are a caring people,” Hester said. “If you truly are disabled, we want to be helpful, but we do not want to be helpful for people who do not want to help themselves.”

The Legislature’s three priorities for public safety policies should be sentencing reform, a new state crime lab and more beds to keep “repeat violent offenders” incarcerated, Hester said.

Shepherd said he expects there to be some legislation to expand prison bed capacity, but the issue is complicated because all aspects of the criminal justice system have an impact on one another.

Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he supports releasing inmates who are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, such as leaving a police stop or possession of a small amount of drugs.

 

Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch)
Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch)

“We need to go back and look at those numbers,” Stubblefield said. “I don’t think they’re that high, but if they are, those should be the first ones we look at allowing to be released.”

He also said the state’s recidivism rate concerns him and violent offenders should remain incarcerated.

“I’m sure that we’re going to look at every aspect of the criminal justice system and see what can be done,” Stubblefield said.

Shepherd noted that the General Assembly has typically met for around 90 days in legislative session, except in unusual cases like during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021 when the Legislature met for 118 days.

“I want us to take the time we need but not belabor the point,” he said.

 

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Hunter Field
Hunter Field

Hunter Field is a veteran Arkansas journalist whose reporting on the state has carried him from military air strips in northwest Arkansas to soybean fields in the Arkansas delta. He spent the better part of the last decade investigating and reporting on Arkansas government and politics. For three years, he covered education policy, medical marijuana and the Arkansas General Assembly as part of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Capitol Bureau. Most recently, he was the Democrat-Gazette's projects editor, leading the newspaper's investigative team. Hunter got his start in journalism covering sports for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. A Memphis native, he enjoys smoking barbecue, kayaking and fishing in his free time.

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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri. A Midwesterner by birth, she graduated from the University of Missouri's journalism school in 2019.

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