LITTLE ROCK — The 89th General Assembly convened Monday with a new Republican majority at the Capitol facing many of the same issues that Democratic-controlled assemblies have faced for years — Medicaid, prisons, schools and human services.
Parliamentarian Buddy Johnson in the House and Lt. Gov. Mark Darr in the Senate banged the gavel to bring the respective chambers to order at about noon. Lawmakers put aside the major challenges on opening day with family and friends on hand for swearing-in ceremonies.
Chief Justice Jim Hannah administered the oath of office to House Speaker Davy Carter and 98 other House members who were present, 43 of them freshmen. Only Rep. Jonathan Barnett, R-Springdale, was absent Monday. He was in a hospital under the care of a cardiologist, the House staff said.
Hannah and Justice Courtney Goodson swore in the 35 members of the Senate, including 15 first-time members of the chamber — most of them former House members — and Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville.
In the November general election, Republicans captured majorities in both chambers of the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.
Carter, R-Cabot, acknowledged the historic nature of the occasion in a speech to House members Monday but called on House members to work together for the good of all Arkansans.
“Indeed, the 89th General Assembly has already made history, but today forward history will be made because of what we do, not who we are,” he said.
In a brief speech to Senate colleagues, Lamoureux urged members to appreciate the diverse opinions of each member on contentious issues such as Medicaid and to work together.
“To me, this is not all about Medicaid, but how we treat each other,” he said.
Carter, who defeated Republican Terry Rice of Waldron to win the speaker’s seat after newly elected members voted following the November election not to affirm the election earlier in the year of Democrat Darrin Williams of Little Rock as speaker, appointed both men to House leadership positions Monday.
He named Williams as speaker pro tem and Rice as chairman of the Joint Performance Review Committee.
In addition to Williams, Carter gave leadership positions to Democratic Reps. Marshall Wright of Forrest City, who will chair the House Judiciary Committee, and James McLean of Batesville, who will chair the House Education Committee.
Other appointments by Carter included Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, to chair the House Public Health, Labor and Welfare Committee, and Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, to chair the House Revenue and Taxation Committee.
Burris has been an outspoken critic of Medicaid expansion, which Gov. Mike Beebe supports. Collins has advocated cutting the state income tax, which Beebe does not support.
Carter told reporters after the House adjourned that he believed he had assembled a leadership team of “good, solid, quality people.” He said his appointment of Burris to chair the public health panel should not be taken as a move to shut down Medicaid expansion.
“I’m still getting my thoughts in order on that issue,” he said. “The public health committee, I think, is pretty diverse on party — I think it’s 11 Democratic members and nine Republican members. I don’t think (Burris’ appointment) has any real outcome on the debate. I wouldn’t read a whole lot into that.”
If Williams’ election had been affirmed, he would have been the first black speaker in Arkansas history. Carter said Monday that his appointment of Williams as speaker pro tem was “a no-brainer.”
“Darren is an extraordinary guy. He’s a hard worker, he’s brilliant and he has put a lot of work into this body,” Carter said.
Gov. Mike Beebe is to present his proposed $4.9 billion general-revenue budget for the 2013-2014 fiscal year Tuesday during his state-of-the-state address to a joint session in the House chamber.
“There’s not going to be any huge surprises,,” Beebe told reporters Monday. “We’re going to be talking about the stuff we’ve already been talking about. Medicaid will be an issue, certainly taxes will be an issue, balancing the budget will be an issue … (and) working together, don’t be like Washington.”
Beebe’s proposed balanced budget for the next fiscal year includes a reduction in the sales tax on groceries from 1 1/2 cents to eighth-tenths of a cent per dollar spent. The reduction would be triggered when certain budget obligations, including desegregation payments to three Pulaski County school districts and payments on certain bonds, decline by at least $35 million for six consecutive months.
The proposed budget also includes using part of the state surplus, efficiency measures and possible cuts in human services to deal with a shortfall to the state Medicaid budget.
GOP leaders have proposed using more of the surplus than Beebe has proposed and none of the human services cuts to address the shortfall.