The new legislative Republican majority in Arkansas has drawn criticism for focusing too much on social issues, but the legislators are merely matching their candidate talk with their elected walk.
"We are more than halfway through the session and jobs, Medicaid, education are still taking the back seat to social issues," spokesman for the Democratic Party of Arkansas Candace Martin observed last week on the social network Twitter.
It’s true some of the highest-profile bills have focused on limiting abortion, but that should not be a surprise. The bills now becoming law have been introduced in various forms in previous sessions, but often were aborted in committees controlled by Democrats. Now, they are passing in the House and Senate and surviving gubernatorial vetoes.
Many Republicans ran for legislative seats using a coordinated message — a strategy similar to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s "Contract with America" back in the 1990s. The Arkansas version was called the "SIMPLE Plan" which promised to focus on six areas.
The P in the plan was "Protecting Arkansas’ future," which spelled out specifically that, if elected, candidates would work to protect life, including passing the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act to ban most abortions after 20 weeks. So it should not have been a surprise that the bill and several others were a priority of the newly elected Republican majority.
It’s worth noting that while abortion-related issues have gotten a lot of attention, progress has been steady on other areas of the SIMPLE Plan. Some examples:
— "Spending restraint" was introduced in HB 1041 by House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs, which sought to limit the size of state government growth to no more than the average annual change in the state disposable personal income. His bill made it out of committee but came up two votes short on the House floor. Westerman has said he may make another run with the bill.
— "Income and other tax reform" proposals are numerous but mostly in the discussion phase in the Revenue and Taxation committees of both chambers. House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, has indicated he would like to see about $150 million in tax cuts moved to the House floor once the Legislatue has a clearer picture of the overall budget.
— "Medicaid sustainability" has been a dominant theme of the session, reforming the current Medicaid system and deciding whether to expand it as part of health care reform. Westerman has introduced a couple of bills, HB 1255 and HB 1256, focused on reducing fraud within the Medicaid program.
— "Protecting Arkansas’ future" is a broader category that includes not only the pro-life proposals but also election reforms such as SB 2 by Sen. Bryan King, R-Berryville, that would require voters to show photo identification.
— "Legal and regulatory reform" measures were proposed by Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, including HB 1043 which offers a reward for state employee whistle blowers and HB 1187, which prohibits spending public funds to promote or oppose ballot measures.
— "Education excellence" proposals have come in the form of a number of bills aimed at increasing school choice and helping encourage more charter schools.
So, Republicans are keeping their campaign promises. It’s too soon to know how many of the bills will become laws, but it’s clear they are working to that end. Bottom line: No one should be surprised about issues the new majority is working to advance. Those not pleased with the direction either were not paying attention during the campaign or probably voted for candidates from the minority party.
Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com.