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Arkansas House Members Pick Committees, Democrats Take Majority On Tax Panel

Inside the Arkansas House of Representatives chamber at the State Capitol.
Inside the Arkansas House of Representatives chamber at the State Capitol.
Inside the Arkansas House of Representatives chamber at the State Capitol.
Inside the Arkansas House of Representatives chamber at the State Capitol.

After big gains by Republicans in Tuesday’s election, members of the Arkansas House of Representatives caucused to select their committees at the state Capitol Thursday.

Republicans in the Arkansas House maintained control of nine out of the 10 standing committees, the initial barriers for considering new legislation. Democrats, who now control less than 30 percent of legislative seats, were able to put 11 of their members on the 20-member House Revenue and Taxation Committee.

House Minority leader Michael John Gray of Augusta is one of the Democratic members on that committee.

“The revenue stream and funding and the reasonable management of our tax dollars has always been a high priority and there are members that are on that committee and it was a priority for them. And we do committee selection by seniority and it was how they felt,” he said.

The Revenue and Taxation Committee could play a significant role in handling tax cut proposals in the coming legislative session. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has proposed $50 million in tax cuts while Republican State Sen. Bart Hester of Cave Springs has proposed a $106 million tax cut plan for both low and high income earners."

Republican Rep. Dan Douglas of Bentonville, who also has a seat on the taxation committee, said the 2017 legislative session is likely to be dominated by a conservative Republican agenda.

“But,” Douglas said, “whether Democrat of Republican, we all represent in the House about 30,000 [constituents] in our districts. And those members are in the far right to the far left and everywhere in between. So we consider all legislation that that’s brought forth by members."

After news of House Democrats’ majority of the Revenue and Taxation Committee, some Arkansas Republicans took to social media to voice their criticism of the move.

Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin called it “an affront to voters and outrageous” on Twitter.

“Voters gave Republicans legislative majorities. We shouldn’t ignore them & give to Dems. Just because Dems did it doesn’t make it right,” he went on to write.

“The 770,000 Arkansans represented by House Democrats don’t deserve a voice?” wrote Democratic State Rep. Greg Leding on Twitter in response to other similar criticism.

Democrats lost two state Senate seats and eight House seats in Tuesday’s election. Six of the Democratic losses in both chambers were by incumbents. Four incumbent Democrats in the Legislature were able to retain their seats.

Republicans gained those 10 seats as well as the seat of outgoing Independent State Rep. Nate Bell of Mena. Republicans also picked up the seat of State Rep. Jeff Wardlaw of Hermitage, who said he was changing his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican a day after the November 8 election.

Before the election, Democrats had control of 34 House seats. They now control 26 out of 100 seats. Republicans in the House are one seat shy of a “super-majority” whereby 75 votes are needed to pass budget bills. Not having the super-majority allows a small minority of lawmakers to block appropriations legislation.

In the 2014 Fiscal Session and in the 2015 Regular Session,  a group of more than 25 Republicans blocked passage of funding bills for the state’s “private option” Medicaid expansion plan for several days, before enough members were persuaded to reverse their vote and join the others in passing the legislation with the requisite three-fourths majority.

Before the election, Republicans had control of 23 out the state Senate’s 34 seats. They now have control of 25 seats, which is also slightly shy of the three-fourths super-majority.

Copyright 2016 KUAR

Chris Hickey was born and raised in Houston, Texas, spending his teenage years in Camden, Ohio. He graduated from Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, majoring in English. He got his start in public radio working as a board operator at WMUB in Oxford, Ohio during his summer and winter breaks from school. Since graduating, he has made Little Rock home. He joined KUAR in September 2011 as a production intern and has since enjoyed producing, anchoring and reporting for the station. He is the composer of KUAR's Week-In-Review Podcast theme music and the associate producer of Arts & Letters.