SESSION SNAPSHOT: What you need to know from the first week of the 94th Arkansas General Assembly

By: - January 13, 2023 6:00 am

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her family wave to the crowd before she was sworn in as the 47th Governor of Arkansas as well as the first female to hold the office. (Photo by Karen E. Segrave/Arkansas Advocate)

POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE ruled most of the first week of the 2023 legislative session at the Arkansas State Capitol.

Lawmakers and legislative leaders were sworn in on Monday, but that was just an opening act for Tuesday’s inauguration of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Sanders — the state’s first female governor — set the tone for her administration in a pair of speeches. She called herself “a bold, conservative reformer” who was bringing with her a new generation of conservatives to the governor’s office and state Legislature.

Education Secretary Jacob Oliva speaks after Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signs an executive order on education. (Photo by Hunter Field/Arkansas Advocate)
Education Secretary Jacob Oliva speaks after Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signs an executive order on education. (Photo by Hunter Field/Arkansas Advocate)

1) EXECUTIVE ORDER BONANZA

Sanders signed seven executive orders just hours after her inauguration on Tuesday (neatly compiled here by Advocate Senior Reporter Antoinette Grajeda). She issued another wide-ranging order on public education on Wednesday.

They intend to address a range of issues from cultural ones, like critical race theory in schools and the use of the term “Latinx” by state agencies, to a state government hiring freeze and a review of previous executive orders.

However, it isn’t clear how much impact these executive orders will actually have.

First, there’s only so much policy change a governor in Arkansas can make without the help of the state Legislature.

Second, it’s not clear whether or to what extent some of the issues exist in Arkansas.

There’s scant evidence critical race theory is being taught in public, K-12 schools in Arkansas, and the governor already controlled what regulatory rules were proposed to the General Assembly for approval.

Perhaps, Sanders meant some of the orders to be prophylactic.

Finally, several of the orders require agency officials to conduct internal reviews, and the results won’t be known for several months.

2) A SLOW WEEK

Slow as far as legislative action is concerned, that is. Just a few resolutions, appropriations and sets of rules were passed by the state House and Senate.

One resolution adopted by the House proclaimed Monday, Jan. 16, Religious Freedom Day. The Senate referred the resolution to committee on Thursday.

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However, lawmakers continued to file bills. A few of note:

House Bill 1113 by Rep. Ryan Rose (R-Van Buren) would expand the Succeed Scholarship to more foster children.

House Bill 1097 by Rep. David Ray (R-Maumelle) would cut the state’s top income tax rate from 4.9% to 4.5%.

Senate Bill 43 by Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch) would classify drag shows the same as pornography stores, strip clubs, escort agencies and other “adult-oriented” businesses, meaning drag shows could not occur on public property or where a minor could see it.

3) RULE CHANGE

A rule change adopted by the House likely will make it harder for citizens to participate in the committee process.

During the pandemic, the posted agenda for committee meetings included the list of bills that were expected to be considered during that meeting.

That was different from how House committees traditionally operated. Historically, all bills that had been assigned to the committee appeared on the agenda, whether they would be heard in that day’s meeting or not.

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The rules adopted this week revert to the old way of doing the agendas.

Why does this matter? Well, it makes it more difficult for members of the public to know when a bill they might be interested in will be discussed and voted on in committee. If someone wants to attend a committee hearing on a bill, they may have to attend several meetings over several weeks before the bill is taken up by that committee.

Committees generally take up bills in the order they’re filed, but not always.

The House tweaked the rule during the pandemic to cut down on the number of people attending committee hearings.

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Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd (R-El Dorado) said the rule is being changed back at the request of several representatives. Some House members were concerned the pandemic rule gave committee chairmen too much power to determine if a bill made it onto an agenda.

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

Shepherd said he wants committee chairs this session to communicate as best they can to tell the public what bills will be considered at a given meeting.

“We’re going to try to be as open as we possibly can,” Shepherd said. “At the end of the day, the House is made up of 100 members… Each member has legislation. I think going back to the old rule we’re probably erring on the side of making sure that members feel like they’ve had the opportunity to bring that legislation forward.”

4) WHAT’S NEXT?

The House and Senate are both taking Monday off in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Lawmakers will start voting on bills in earnest next week.

Looming over the beginning of the session is an expected legislative package from Gov. Sanders focused on a range of education issues. She’s promised the plan will be released soon.

Could next week be the week?

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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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