LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas House Republicans have gained an additional member, tilting the balance of power in the statehouse to a 75/25 split, which, by the numbers, gives the GOP a supermajority in the House. Gaining that supermajority could leave House Democrats sidelined when deciding on appropriation bills they oppose, as this leaves them one short of the 26 votes needed to stall appropriations.
Rep. David Hillman, D-Almyra, announced on Tuesday that he is changing his party affiliation to the Republican Party, making him the second Democratic House member in as many weeks to defect to the GOP. The day after Election Day, Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, D-Warren, announced that he would be switching his affiliation to the GOP.
Hillman said, however, that any assumptions that he will be an automatic vote for the Republican Party agenda won’t necessarily be a safe bet, adding that his reasons for changing parties were more a matter of practicality than philosophy.
“Being a member of the majority party, you can influence the decision makers, you can get to them more easily,” Hillman said. “As an example, the governor has proposed streamlining state government and some of those things are going to affect agriculture. I want to be in a position where I can have some influence on the good things he’s proposing to get them passed, and the bad things to try and stop them. If I were a Democrat, he’d just say, ‘oh, you’re a Democrat, of course you’ll oppose me.’ But that’s not the way I work and that’s not where I’m coming from.”
Hillman said, as a Republican, he will be better able to influence legislation that is in the best interests of his constituents, whereas, being a Democrat in the Republican controlled House was too restrictive.
Michael John Gray, D-Augusta, the House Minority Leader, said Hillman’s party switch should not automatically mean House Democrats will be sidelined during the session, and said although some votes do fall along party lines, that is less often the case than other considerations.
“Realistically, there is rural versus urban, there are different ideologies and opinions, and while it prevents the Democrats from having a party line hold on anything, I think as in all sessions, the no’s are not always all Democrat, the yeses are not always all Republican,” said Gray. “We’re going in with the same mindset of doing good, responsible legislation that helps make the lives of all Arkansans better.”
Gray conceded, however, that on the occasions where votes do fall along party lines, the Democratic House members will be at a distinct disadvantage.
“At that point, I’d have to say, unfortunately, the math is the math,” he said. “I’d hope we don’t have a lot of party line votes, that we’re doing reasonable and responsible legislation, but if it comes down to a party line vote, the math is the math.”
Hillman said, however, regardless of numbers, for him, serving in the House is about making sure his constituents’ wants and needs are adequately represented at the state level, something he said he was not able to do as a Democrat.
“They’ll give you a seat at the table but you don’t get to talk, or what you say doesn’t matter,” he said.
On the Senate side of the Capitol, Republicans hold 26 of the 35 seats in that chamber, leaving them one seat away from a supermajority of their own.