LITTLE ROCK — Improbably, the wrangling over budget cuts that marked the first two weeks of the fiscal session pitted the governor and House speaker, both in their 60s and both veterans of state government, against the Legislature's youngest member.
LITTLE ROCK — Improbably, the wrangling over budget cuts that marked the first two weeks of the fiscal session pitted the governor and House speaker, both in their 60s and both veterans of state government, against the Legislature’s youngest member.
John Burris of Harrison was 23 when he was first elected to the House in 2008, making him the youngest person elected to the Arkansas Legislature since the 1970s, when Democrat Steve Smith won a seat at age 21. Burris was the youngest Republican ever elected to the Legislature.
“I was very nervous about walking in and being taken seriously,” Burris recalled last week in an interview in his office at the Capitol.
Not only was he taken seriously, but in 2010 his fellow Republican House members elected him as their leader.
“I was just shocked at how little (my age) mattered,” Burris said.
Burris was not new to politics, having served as state chairman of the Arkansas Federation of College
Republicans, a position that led to his being hired as campaign manager for Gunner DeLay’s unsuccessful 2006 bid for attorney general.
Several people encouraged Burris to run for office, including Michael Lamoureux of Russellville, now a state
senator but then the House Republican leader.
Burris was working as a manager at Wendy’s to help pay for his studies at Arkansas Tech University when Lamoureux saw him through the drive-through window and recognized him from his work with the college Republican group.
“He said, ‘You should really think about running for something. You should really get active. Here’s my card.’ And I remember it said ‘Minority Leader,’” Burris said.
Burris entered the House at a time when a new generation of Republicans was beginning to pump fresh blood into the state party. His freshman class also included Republicans Duncan Baird of Lowell and Jonathan Dismang of Beebe, both of whom were 29 during their first session, as well as several Republican members in their early 30s.
“We had a very large freshman class. Out of the 28 in the caucus I think 17 of us were freshmen, so very quickly I would say that our class kind of emerged as maybe the more vocal out of the caucus,” Burris said.
Burris had then and still has no job outside of being a legislator, choosing to get by on his $15,869 annual legislative pay plus reimbursements he receives when he drives from Harrison to Little Rock for meetings during the interim between sessions. During sessions, he lives in an apartment on the Capitol grounds.
Burris is also single and a man of simple tastes. One of his favorite meals is the chicken biscuit with cheese at McDonald’s, which he eats almost every morning.
“That’s the benefit of being young and never being rich. I don’t really know the difference,” he said.
Burris said that between sessions he spends his time recruiting Republican candidates, working on policy issues and studying the budget.
“I felt very confident in my ability to debate the state budget with just about anybody this session, and that was because I spent three years learning about it,” he said.
Burris demonstrated that confidence during the current fiscal session when he proposed trimming $21 million from Gov. Mike Beebe’s proposed $4.7 billion budget for the next fiscal year. Beebe rejected most of
Burris’ proposed cuts, saying they would force layoffs and curtail essential services, and after about two weeks of wrangling, Burris relented. The governor’s budget is expected to be taken up by the Joint Budget Committee on Monday.
The squabble garnered Burris some of the toughest criticism of his young career. Rep. Kathy Webb, D-Little Rock, co-chairman of Joint Budget, blasted him for interjecting “partisan, Washington politics into the process.”
The Baxter Bulletin said in an editorial, “It looks like Washington-style politics have come to Little Rock thanks to Rep. John Burris and fellow Republicans …”
Burris denied the charge.
“All we had was a little bit of debate about spending levels and a (Medicaid) crisis that everybody admits is coming and is going to potentially bankrupt our budget,” he said. “Somebody tell me how that’s bad.”
The product of a family that produced several Republican justices of the peace in Pope County in the late 1800s, Burris said he is fiscally and socially conservative but not a hard-liner. He cited his vote last year to refer a diesel tax increase to voters to fund highway improvements as an example of his moderate stance.
“When you look at my voting record, it’s not nearly as right-wing as people would like to portray it,” he said.
House Speaker Robert S. Moore Jr., D-Arkansas City, said he wished Burris would have introduced his proposed budget cuts during the pre-session budget hearings, but “I’m not sure I’d characterize this as Washington-style politics.”
“Our business has continued to flow, and I think it’s continued to flow because we have been able to have an open, frank and honest dialogue in doing our business. We certainly don’t always agree, but we’ve always been able to continue our talks,” Moore said.
Republican House members describe Burris as laid-back and self-effacing.
“We were never forced to vote in a certain way or never threatened to vote in a certain way. He never put that pressure on us,” said Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway.
Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, recalled hearing Burris answer a question by saying he was too tired to think of an answer.
“That kind of honesty I think has really endeared him with a lot of us,” Collins said.
Burris said he is proud of his work as minority leader but will not seek the position again, nor does he plan to run for any other office beyond seeking re-election this year. He said he is not naturally ambitious.
“(Running for office) was really at the encouragement and support of others. I’m hoping somebody comes along and talks me into doing something else good, because I’m probably not smart enough to come up with it on my own,” he said.