LITTLE ROCK — With legislative control swinging from Democrats to Republicans, Gov. Mike Beebe on Wednesday emphasized cooperation, and not partisan bickering, would move Arkansas forward.
Republicans appeared to have gained slim majorities in the House and Senate after breaking a 138-year run of Democratic dominance in Tuesday’s historic general election.
The GOP wrested control of both chambers from Democrats for the first time since Reconstruction in a bruising and costly campaign aided by out-of-state cash from conservative groups who helped financially in repainting Arkansas’ political landscape from blue to red.
Beebe, who had predicted the election would produce slim legislative majorities either way, said Wednesday he fully expects the best interests of the state to trump partisanship in dealings with a GOP-led Legislature.
"I think noncooperation by Democrats will be held against Democrats, just like noncooperation by Republicans will be held against Republicans," Beebe told reporters at the state Capitol. "I think gridlock and noncooperation is a bipartisan issue. I think it cuts both ways."
Arkansans also voted Tuesday to send an all-Republican delegation to the U.S. House for the first time, and to raise the state sales tax to fund a $1.8 billion highway bond program. Voters rejected a bid to legalize marijuana for medical use and turned back a bid to authorize local governments to help fund private development with taxpayer money.
As expected, Arkansas gave Republican Mitt Romney a large victory in his failed bid to deny Democratic President Barack Obama a second term.
Voters in three dry counties — Benton, Madison and Sharpe — voted to go wet.
With current Democratic margins of 53-46 in the House and 20-15 in the Senate, Republicans needed to pick up three seats in the Senate and five seats in the House to gain simple majorities. They picked up six Senate seats and gained at least four House seats, with one House race that remained undetermined Wednesday that did not include a Democratic candidate.
Democrats questioned apparent Republicans victories in two close legislative races. Recount requests were being considered, a Democratic Party spokeswoman said, in the Senate District 34 race in which Republican Jane English bested Democrat Barry Hyde by 282 votes — both are from North Little Rock, and in House District House District 52 where Democrat L.J. Bryant of Grubbs lost by 44 votes to Republican John K. Hutchison of Harrisburg.
Slim legislative majorities give Republicans the numbers to override a gubernatorial veto but not to pass appropriation bills without bipartisan cooperation because budget legislation requires three-fourths votes in both chambers for approval.
"I have enormous confidence in the majority of the people that get elected to do what I think has to be done to keep Arkansas moving in the direction she’s been moving," Beebe said Wednesday, adding that both parties in the Legislature "will absolutely have to work together, and part of my job is to encourage, persuade, plead and cajole to get them to work together."
The governor said he received a call early Wednesday from Sen. Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, the likely next Senate president pro tem, who pledged bipartisan cooperation. The two agreed that nobody wants Washington-style gridlock in Arkansas, Beebe said.
Lamoureux did not immediate return a telephone call seeking comment Wednesday.
Beebe said his top priority remains further reducing the state sales tax on groceries, but he had nothing new to say Wednesday about expanding Medicaid, which he supports but Republican lawmakers have resisted.
The constitutional amendment voters approved will raise the state sales tax from 6 percent to 6.5 percent for 10 years, beginning July 1, to fund a $1.8 billion highway program to link all parts of the state by four-lane highways. The program is projected to create more than 40,000 jobs and fund a number of large expensive projects across the state, including the replacement of the Interstate 30 bridge over the Arkansas River between Little Rock and North Little Rock and the widening of I-40 between Little Rock and Conway.
Scott Bennett, director of Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, said state Highway Commission will hire consultant for the bond issue and a project management firm. He said the goal is for work to begin on some of the projects within a year.
"We’re hoping that we start to let the first contracts just shortly after the collection of the tax starts," he said, adding that public hearings will be held in advance of any projects and information will be available on the highway department’s website.
Two years ago, Republicans won three of the state’s four U.S. House seats, two of them held at the time by retiring Democrats. The GOP completed the sweep in Tuesday’s election, handily winning in all four districts, including the 4th District where newcomer Tom Cotton dispatched Democratic challenger Gene Jeffress to capture the seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Congressman Mike Ross. None of the Republicans won by less than 20 points.
Ross pledged Wednesday to work with Cotton on a smooth transition.
With Tuesday’s results, U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor will be lone Democrat in Arkansas’ congressional delegation. Pryor has said he plans to seek re-election in 2014.