Sarah Huckabee Sanders sworn in as Arkansas’ first female governor
She highlights education, tax cuts, safer streets as priorities
Sarah Huckabee Sanders addresses the crowd after she was sworn in as the 47th Governor for the State of Arkansas. Sanders is also the first female governor for the state of Arkansas and the youngest governor in the United States. (Photo by Karen E. Segrave/Arkansas Advocate)
This was updated at 5:55 p.m. on Jan. 10, 2023.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders in her first speeches as Arkansas’ 47th governor described herself as part of a new generation of Republicans eager to limit the role of government.
With her swearing in by the state’s chief justice, Sanders became the first female governor of Arkansas, and she followed in the footsteps of her father, former Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Both her addresses — first to members of the Arkansas Legislature then to the public on the State Capitol steps — touched on her main priorities and included heavy Christian undertones, but they differed in their tenor.
To state lawmakers, she struck a collaborative chord of “boundless optimism.”
Framed by dozens of American and state flags outside the Capitol, Sanders’ inaugural address was unapologetically conservative.
“And now this new generation assumes the mantle of leadership not to be caretakers of the status quo, but to be changemakers for the people of Arkansas,” she said. “With this new generation, a new vision is coming to Little Rock — and today, a bold, conservative reformer is coming to the Governor’s mansion. I’m assembling a team of young visionary leaders from across Arkansas and the nation and know that with this team and our partners in the Legislature, great things are ahead.”
She followed the inaugural address with the signing of seven executive orders — a mix of national hot-button social issues and government accountability measures.
The impacts of those orders will be minimal in some cases, and effects of others unclear.
A legislative session looms where meatier issues — like teacher pay, prison expansion and the state tax code — must be addressed.
While Sanders dropped a few more hints about her legislative agenda, detailed proposals have not been released.
In addition to shattering the Governor’s Mansion’s glass ceiling, Sanders on Tuesday became the youngest governor in the U.S. at 40 years old.
She also noted that she is the first daughter of a former governor to be elected in U.S. history.
“I don’t want to dismiss the significance of all that,” Sanders said. “But I did not seek this office to be the first anything — I ran to make Arkansas first in everything. I’m not interested in making history because of who I am. I want all of us to make history for what we achieve together over the next eight years.”
The Democratic Party of Arkansas in a statement congratulated Sanders, but criticized her speech as divisive and an attack on educators.
“No one can deny that electing the first woman to serve as Governor is a proud milestone,” the Democrats’ statement said. “This moment is bittersweet for many women as Governor Sanders’s party denies women the opportunity to start a family how, when, and where they want.”
Sanders spoke to a crowd that included a host of former governors, sitting U.S. senators, business leaders and other elected officials.
Born in Hope, Sanders spent many of her formative years in the Governor’s Mansion. She worked on political campaigns, including her father’s presidential bids and U.S. Sens. John Boozman’s and Tom Cotton’s campaigns.
Boozman was master of ceremonies Tuesday, a role he also had at Huckabee’s inauguration.
Sanders rose to national prominence as former President Donald Trump’s White House press secretary, capitalizing on increased name recognition and popularity with her successful gubernatorial campaign.
She defeated Democrat Chris Jones handily in November, and succeeds term-limited Gov. Asa Hutchinson, whom she commended for his work leading the state for the last eight years.
Sanders inherits a state in perhaps the healthiest financial position in its history. Arkansas’ budget surplus last fiscal year exceeded $1.6 billion, and it has more than $2 billion in reserves.
She also takes office after an election in which Republicans strengthened supermajorities in both the state House and Senate.
In her speech to legislators and shortly after to the public gathered on the State Capitol steps, Sanders expressed the desire to give Arkansans a “pay raise” by further cutting taxes, ultimately phasing out the state income tax completely.
Under Hutchinson, the General Assembly cut taxes for earners throughout the income tax table, including slashing the state’s top income tax rate from 7% to 4.9%.
Among her first official actions as Arkansas’ chief executive, Sanders signed an executive order prohibiting the “indoctrination” of public school students with ideologies, like critical race theory.
“As long as I am governor, our schools will focus on the skills our children need to get ahead in the modern world — not brainwashing our children with a left-wing political agenda,” Sanders said.
Critical race theory is typically not taught in K-12 schools in Arkansas, and it is reserved mostly for graduate-level college coursework.
Gov. Sanders Executive Orders — Jan. 10, 2023
Last year, then-Attorney General Leslie Rutledge released an opinion stating that the teaching of CRT in Arkansas schools violated federal law and the Arkansas Constitution.
State Democrats decried the plan.
“The beginning of Governor Sanders’s term will also be remembered for attacking Arkansas schools for ‘indoctrination,’ a charge she has repeatedly levied against Arkansas teachers,” the party’s statement said. “Arkansas Democrats stand with our teachers and know they are first and foremost much too busy grading papers, buying their own supplies, and making lesson plans to indoctrinate anyone.”
Sanders on Tuesday also signed an executive order instructing state entities to replace any uses of the term “Latinx” with “Hispanic,” “Hispanics,” “Latino,” “Latinos,” “Latina,” or “Latinas.”
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Another executive order follows action by Hutchinson to prohibit the use of TikTok on state networks or devices. The order also instructs state technology officials to ensure no state devices or programs pose undue risks of misuse by foreign adversaries.
The remaining executive orders focused on government accountability.
Like Hutchinson, Sanders also signed an executive order shortly after taking the oath of office to implement a state government hiring freeze. Sanders’ order also pauses promotions, but the departments of public safety and corrections are exempt.
Sanders told Tuesday’s crowd that she will be the “education governor.”
She and legislative leaders have repeatedly alluded to a forthcoming “education reform” package of legislation from Sanders that will be considered during the ongoing session. It’s expected to include teacher pay raises, literacy improvement measures, school choice expansion and other policies.
Sanders will face opposition on any legislation that allows the use of public dollars on private school tuition from Democrats and possibly members of her own party.
However, she said parents should be given a greater role in their children’s education.
“Parents cannot be an afterthought in education,” she told the General Assembly. “Parents are the foundation of a child’s success. So let’s give parents a greater role in education, including the right to choose the school that’s best for their child – whether it is public, private or parochial. When we give parents a choice, we give children a chance.”
She also promised to defend Arkansans from federal overreach.
“The meddling hand of big government creeping down from Washington D.C. will be stopped cold at the Mississippi River,” she said.
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Sanders highlighted the recent death of Stuttgart police Sgt. Donald Scoby as an example of the need for “safe streets” and financial investment in law enforcement throughout Arkansas. Scoby was shot and killed in December while trying to make an arrest, and Sanders described his death as a “selfless sacrifice.”
“We will end the crime wave, we will end the hateful ‘Defund the Police’ movement and we will stand up for the heroes of law enforcement every single day,” Sanders said.
State legislators said Monday as the 2023 session began that increasing the state’s prison bed capacity should be a priority. Sanders echoed this and said the state should also make an effort to provide mental health care, addiction treatment and workforce instruction for inmates.
She promised to veto any bills that expand government while taking away freedoms “without remorse.”
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