LITTLE ROCK — The 91st General Assembly convened Monday at the state Capitol with pleas for civility from the leaders of the House and Senate.
House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, who was re-elected speaker by acclamation Monday, told House members it is important for them to be respectful of each other.
“We must be creative, we must be collaborative, and above all, we must be civil. We will be a stronger body by treating each other with the highest levels of respect and professionalism,” he said.
Civility also was on the mind of Senate President Pro Tem Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, who was re-elected to that position in November.
Talking to reporters after the Senate adjourned, Dismang said, “I just think it’s important for us moving forward to acknowledge that each member in this chamber is an elected representative of roughly 90,000 people back home and that we all have a common goal and it’s bettering the state of Arkansas.”
Asked if he was referencing any past lack of civility between Arkansas legislators, Dismang said, “No, I think it’s more what you’re seeing on a national level as much as anything.”
Monday kicked off a session in which Gov. Asa Hutchinson will ask legislators to approve a $50 million income tax cut for low-income Arkansans, to take effect in the 2019 tax year, and an income tax exemption for military retirement benefits estimated to cost the state $13 million a year.
Legislators also will decide whether to reauthorize the state’s Medicaid expansion program, which provides private health insurance to more than 300,000 Arkansans, and are expected to consider a number of bills related to implementing and regulating the state’s medical-marijuana program, which voters approved in November.
In the House on Monday, Gillam named the following representatives as chairmen of House committees:
Joe Jett, R-Success, Revenue and Taxation; Mike Holcomb, R-Pine Bluff, Public Transportation; Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, Public Health, Welfare and Labor; Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren, Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs; and Tim Lemons, R-Cabot, City, County and Local Affairs.
Also, Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, Education; Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, Judiciary; Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, Insurance and Commerce; Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, State Agencies and Governmental Affairs; Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development; Andy Davis, R-Little Rock, Rules; and DeAnn Vaught, R-Horatio, Management.
Gillam also named the following representatives as House chairmen of joint committees:
Douglas House, R-North Little Rock, Public Retirement and Social Security Programs; Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, Performance Review; Rick Beck, R-Center Ridge, Energy; and Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, Advanced Communications and Information Technology.
Three of the House members receiving chairmanships, Jett, Holcomb and Wardlaw, changed their party affiliations from Democrat to Republican late last year. Gillam told reporters the party switches had nothing to do with their selection as committee chairmen.
Gillam said Jett, who served as chairman of the tax panel for the past two years, is well regarded for the job he has done in that position and said Holcomb and Wardlaw have experience on the transportation and health panels, respectively, and were the best choices to head those committees.
Asked whether he considered any Democrats for chairmanships, Gillam said he did, but “you get into the dynamics that we’ve got now with the chamber, you have to be respective of that.”
Republicans currently control 76 seats in the 100-member House.
“I think you also have to just be in a good position of being able to see kind of how they all are going to be able to work together, and … at the end of the day, I felt like those names I called out are the ones that are the right individuals to lead those committees for these next two years,” Gillam said.
House Minority Leader Michael John Gray, D-Augusta, was asked if he was disappointed to see no Democrats named to chair committees.
“We’ll be more disappointed if those chairs don’t respect the process and give bills a fair hearing,” Gray said. ‘To us that’s going to mean a lot more than who the chair or vice chair is.”