LITTLE ROCK — Election? What election?
Arkansas’ seven constitutional officers, four U.S. House seats and a Supreme Court seat will be on the ballot in the new year, but none of those races so far are drawing the attention or the money that other campaigns did at this point four years ago. It’s a sign of just how much Arkansas has changed from a competitive playing field for Democrats to one where they’re struggling to rebuild after a GOP takeover.
There’s plenty that could change in the coming months, but the election could be overshadowed by a host of issues ranging from the ever-precarious future of the state’s Medicaid expansion to questions about an ongoing investigation involving former lawmakers. Here’s a look at some of those issues:
— CORRUPTION PROBE: Lawmakers, lobbyists and others around the Capitol are still warily eyeing a federal corruption probe that has already ensnared two former lawmakers and has focused primarily on state money for local projects. Former state Sen. Jon Woods, the president of Ecclesia College and a consultant face a trial in April on an accusation that Woods directed money to the college in return for kickbacks. Woods and the others have pleaded innocent. Former Republican state Rep. Micah Neal pleaded guilty in January to one count of fraud related to the case. Also hanging is a case out of Missouri, where a New Jersey political consultant pleaded guilty to conspiring with a former Arkansas lawmaker and charity executives to spend nearly $1 million on illegal political activity. Five unnamed co-conspirators, including the former lawmaker, have not been charged in the case.
— MEDICAID: Lawmakers are set to reconvene in February potentially facing another fight over the future of the state’s hybrid Medicaid expansion, and the numbers don’t look good in the Legislature for the program’s reauthorization. Two vacancies in the state Senate — one member resigned to take a post in the Trump administration and another died after a long cancer battle — leave supporters at least one vote shy of the three-fourths needed to keep the program alive. Supporters are already floating the possibility of returning in a special session after the May special election for the two seats to take up the Medicaid budget. Also unresolved is whether Arkansas will win federal approval for the changes Gov. Asa Hutchinson wants, including moving 60,000 people off the program and imposing a work requirement.
— TAX CUTS: The Legislature isn’t expected to take up tax cuts during this year’s fiscal session, but a task force looking at overhauling the state’s tax code could set up the fight for the 2019 session. It could also give Hutchinson and Republicans an issue as they head into the general election. The task force is required to issue its recommendations on tax cuts by September. The big question is just how much more room Arkansas has in its budget for additional income tax cuts, and whether there will be support for eliminating tax breaks elsewhere to help pay for them.
— PRISONS: Arkansas’ prison system has been plagued by a string of violent outbreaks over the past year that have included attacks on guards by inmates and two instances of prisoners holding guards hostage at one prison. The incidents have prompted the prison system to announce new security overhauls, including converting hundreds of cells into restrictive housing. The question facing the system is whether these changes will be enough, and whether there will be a push for new funding.
— EXECUTIONS: Arkansas resumed executions in 2017 after a 12-year lull, putting four inmates to death in April. But legal fights and questions remain about the future of the death penalty in the state. A case is pending before the state Supreme Court over a medical supply company’s claim that the state misleadingly obtained one of its execution drugs. The Supreme Court’s decision to ban Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen from hearing any death penalty related cases for participating in an anti-death penalty demonstration the same day he blocked the state from using a lethal injection drug will also loom. Griffen has sued the state high court over its decision, while dueling complaints against Griffen and the state justices are pending before a judicial ethics panel. Arkansas could also face another hurdle in efforts to continue executions, with one of its lethal injection drugs set to expire in March.
— ELECTION: Arkansas’ election still could still offer some surprises. Hutchinson faces the possibility of a challenge from the right in the gubernatorial primary from gun rights activist Jan Morgan, and Democratic hopeful Jared Henderson is ramping up his longshot bid to unseat the popular incumbent governor. Justice Courtney Goodson, whose Supreme Court seat is the only one up in 2018, hasn’t announced whether she’ll seek re-election in a race that could again attract national groups that have spent big in past court campaigns. The biggest fight this election season could be over a proposed constitutional amendment to give the Legislature control over court rules and impose limits on damages awarded in civil lawsuits.