Rep.-elect Mark McElroy spent 20 years as Desha County judge, so he has some political experience and knows his way around the state Capitol. Still, the process of learning how to be a newly elected state legislator is, he said, "like drinking water out of a fire hose."
McElroy is one of 41 soon-to-be House freshmen who spent four days at the Capitol this week being shown the ropes — everything from learning how to record their votes to learning where to park – by more experienced lawmakers and staff.
On Wednesday, the freshmen, along with experienced lawmakers, engaged in mock debates on the House floor. House Speaker-elect Davy Carter, R-Cabot, ruled with a friendly but firm hand, while House Parliamentary Advisor Tim Massanelli coached the freshmen on matters of process and etiquette.
For example, he told them, don’t vote against legislators amending their own bills even if planning to vote against those bills later. Even legislators who did not win their most recent elections came out to help, including Reps. Ed Garner, R-Maumelle, and Tracy Pennartz, D-Fort Smith, who lost state Senate races, and Rep. Jerry Brown, D-Wynne, who lost a bid for re-election.
This one-week process is important. Arkansas’ term limits law means no one serves in the House more than six years, so turnover occurs rapidly and the Legislature remains inexperienced, which is not a bad thing. There are only 100 House members total, so 41 percent will be brand new to their jobs. In the Senate, 15 out of 35 are freshmen, though 10 previously served in the House.
Another incoming freshman, Rep.-elect John Payton, a cowboy hat-wearing auctioneer from Cleburne County, is confident that he’s ready to do the job. He’s been at the Capitol during legislative sessions on auctioneer and trade association business, served on the state Auctioneers Licensing Board and been a member of the board of his local fire department.
"People may be new here, but they’re not new to life," Payton said. "I mean, there’s a lot of experience in there. … I’ve not met anybody that seems like they’re a novice."
It wasn’t long ago that Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, and Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, were themselves newly elected freshmen. Now Burris is in his third and final term while Collins is in his second. They both believe the incoming crop of freshmen is ready to do the job.
Asked at what point he thought he knew what he was doing, Burris said, "I just think you kind of jump in to the deep end of the pool, and slowly you realize you’re not sinking."
The upcoming legislative session, which starts in January, will be historic as the first General Assembly controlled by Republicans since the Civil War. However, despite the partisan nature of the recent elections, the atmosphere is collegial so far. McElroy, a Democrat, has made sure to find seats next to members of the other party, and he and Payton, a Republican, greet each other warmly.
It could get uglier during the session, though probably not between these two. The Legislature – with all these rookies – will be called upon to decide some difficult issues, including whether to expand the state’s Medicaid population. A recent court decision will force them to reconsider how schools are funded. Another will require rewriting the law allowing parents to choose what schools their children attend.
Those kinds of contentious issues lead to gridlock in Washington, but Little Rock will do better. The Republican leaders in both houses – Carter in the House, Sen. Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, in the Senate, are practical-minded consensus builders, not bomb throwers. State legislators are by and large normal folk — auctioneers and retired county judges and such. And because their terms are so limited, they have a lot less time to be infected with the virus that turns idealistic office-seekers into partisan politicians in Washington.
It will be interesting to watch, in other words, but probably not depressing and at times even reassuring. As McElroy put it, "We certainly don’t want to be like Washington, D.C., and get in that stalemate where nothing gets done. The people of Arkansas deserve more than that, and I don’t think they’ll stand for it."
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org