Arkansas legislative Democrats promise to fight, acknowledge bleak numbers

Republicans have solidified supermajority control of both the Arkansas House and Senate

By: - January 11, 2023 2:50 pm
Rep. Tippi McCullough, Sen. Greg Leding

Senate Minority Leader Greg Leding (right) and House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough discuss Democrats’ legislative priorities for the 94th General Assembly’s legislative session that began Monday. (Photo by Hunter Field/Arkansas Advocate)

Democratic leaders know they don’t have the numbers to win many battles in the Arkansas Legislature, but they still plan to try to find common ground with Republicans and fight bills they oppose.

Arkansas Democrats hold essentially no power as a group after Republicans solidified supermajorities in both the state House and Senate during November’s general election.

The House is comprised of of 82 Republicans and 18 Democrats; the Senate has 29 Republicans and six Democrats.

Republicans have enough members in both chambers to pass legislation without any Democratic support, even bills that require more than simple majorities to pass.

“We’re all clear-eyed about the political reality,” Senate Minority Leader Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville) said. “I will say Democrats are able to pass legislation. We’ve had a number of Democrats who have had some pretty impressive wins in recent legislative sessions.”

Leding and House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough (D-Little Rock) both pointed to raising teacher pay, expanding access to pre-kindergarten and some criminal justice reforms as areas that their caucus could work together with Republicans.

But they both said they hoped any education package would be broken up into individual bills. Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has said she’d prefer to combine a package of policy proposals — expected to include teacher pay, literacy and school-choice measures — into one bill.

“We’re ready to say ‘Yes’ to teachers and ‘No’ to vouchers. ‘Yes’ to kids and families and ‘No’ to tax cuts for the rich,” McCullough said at Wednesday’s news conference presenting the Democrats’ agenda.

Leding said that a group of Democrats met last week with Sanders and identified a few areas of common ground.

“There might not be many, but it’s still early and I think we’ll see more of these conversations develop in the coming days,” he said.

While both Republicans and Democrats have said they’d like criminal justice to be a focus of the session, conversations about what laws should be enacted reveal very different priorities.

Democrats are interested in looking at relaxing state marijuana and drug possession laws to decrease punishment for low-level possession offenses, Leding said.

While Republicans have also indicated a desire to look at changes for nonviolent offenses, their priorities have focused mostly on increasing the state’s prison capacity.

Leding and McCullough both criticized Sanders’ actions after her inauguration on Tuesday, signing seven executive orders. They were particularly critical of an executive order the governor signed intended to target “indoctrination” of Arkansas school children with ideas like critical race theory.

Democrats are focused on “not letting issues that are crafted only to distract or divide” obstruct meaningful legislation to help Arkansans, McCullough 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. Most recently, he was the Democrat-Gazette's projects editor, leading the newspaper's investigative team. A Memphis native, he enjoys smoking barbecue, kayaking and fishing in his free time.