LITTLE ROCK — Democrats secured a majority of seats on the state House Revenue and Taxation Committee when the House met in caucus Thursday to take care of organizational matters, a development that Republican Lt. Gov Tim Griffin called “outrageous.”
Returning members and members-elect of the House convened two days after an election that saw Republicans add seven seats to their majority in that chamber. A returning member, Rep. Jeff Wardlaw of Hermitage, said Wednesday he was switching his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican, which means the GOP will control 74 seats in the 100-seat House in the session that begins in January.
During the committee selection process, 11 Democrats chose seats on the 20-member tax panel, giving the minority party the ability to block any tax proposals from clearing the committee.
“An affront to voters and outrageous. Unacceptable,” Griffin said Thursday on Twitter, referring to the maneuver by Democrats.
In a separate tweet, Griffin said, “Voters gave Republicans legislative majorities. We shouldn’t ignore them & give to Dems. Just because Dems did it doesn’t make it right.”
Rep. Joe Jett, D-Success, chairman of the tax panel, said Thursday, “I think what (Griffin) said was totally inappropriate.”
Jett said House members chose committee seats in the order of their seniority, with the members with highest seniority picking first and the members with lowest seniority picking last, in accordance with the House’s long-standing rules. Incoming members drew lots Thursday to determine their order of seniority.
Several Republicans who had opportunities to choose the tax committee before Democrats achieved a majority chose other committees instead, Jett said.
“We can’t make somebody get on a committee,” he said.
Jett also said Republicans have done the same thing when Democrats were in the majority. He said that when members were choosing committee seats in advance of the 2003 session, Republicans secured a majority of seats on the House Judiciary Committee — a panel that later advanced Republican-backed legislation that became the Civil Justice Reform Act of 2003, a law imposing limits on civil lawsuits.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he will ask the Legislature to approve a $50 million income tax cut during the upcoming session. Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, one of the 11 Democrats who chose seats Thursday on the tax committee, has said he favors an earned income tax credit targeting low- and medium-income working families.
Jett said the Democratic majority on the panel does not guarantee that one proposal will be favored over another. Every voice deserves to be heard, he said.
“The integrity of that committee is more important than a D and an R. I think we’ll see it operate in a responsible manner,” Jett said.
Also Thursday, returning and incoming representatives picked seats in the House Chamber and gave gag gifts to a few members, including Rep.-elect Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley, who previously was elected to the House in 2010 and 2012 and was elected to a third term Tuesday after a two-year break during which he ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor.
Members gave Mayberry boxes of tissues in a joking reference to his tendency to give emotional speeches.
Among the incoming members at the Capitol on Thursday was Rep.-elect LeAnne Burch, D-Monticello, who was unopposed to fill the seat vacated by the death of Democrat Sheilla Lampkin of Monticello from ovarian cancer in July.
Burch said she is honored to follow Lampkin in the House and said she has “big shoes to fill.”
“Anything that deals with southeast Arkansas is going to be my No. 1 priority,” in the session, she said.
Also at the Capitol was Rep.-elect John Maddox, R-Mena, who was elected Tuesday to the seat now held by Rep. Nate Bell, I-Mena. Bell chose not to seek re-election to a fourth term.
“I’m very excited and honored to serve the district,” Maddox said.
He said tax reform and economic development are the main issues he intends to focus on during the session.