LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas House and Senate convened Monday for the opening day of a session in which lawmakers face decisions on tax cuts and the Medicaid expansion program known as the private option.

LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas House and Senate convened Monday for the opening day of a session in which lawmakers face decisions on tax cuts and the Medicaid expansion program known as the private option.


The session got off to a somber start in the Senate with the announcement that Sen. David Wyatt of Batesville died during the night.


Watt, 65, had been undergoing treatment for cancer. He served in the state House from 2005-09 and in the state Senate from 2009 until this month. He did not seek re-election last year.


"He was one of the best of us," Senate President Pro Tem Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, said on the Senate floor.


After Dismang made the announcement, several senators who served with Wyatt shared memories of him, often in voices choked with emotion.


"David was just something really special," said Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff.


The mood lightened when the time came for the opening prayer in the Senate chamber, which was led by Dismang’s son, Sawyer, 5, and the Pledge of Allegiance, led by Dismang’s son, Cade, 10.


Dismang and House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, both said they expect to see vigorous debate during the session and urged legislators to remain civil.


"As you look around the chamber today, you find yourselves among a unique group of people who will understand the pressures that you will face as members of this body," Gillam said. "The bonds you will develop with them are what will make us strong. By treating each other with the highest level of respect and professionalism, we will be even stronger."


Gov.-elect Asa Hutchinson, who is to be sworn in Tuesday, has pledged to push for a $100 million income tax cut for Arkansans earning between $20,400 and $75,000 a year. He has said he will make an announcement later this month about health-care reform, including his position on the private option.


Gillam announced a number of committee chairmanships Monday, including Rep. Joe Jett, D-Success, as chairman of the House Revenue and Tax Committee.


Jett said Monday that Hutchinson’s proposed tax cut likely would receive strong support. He also said that, at least ideally, he would like to see a decision made on the private option first.


"I would rather see where the money’s going to be at," he said.


Rep. Kelley Linck, R-Flippin, whom Gillam named chairman of the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee, said he expects lawmakers to propose changes to the private option.


"I’m not hearing near as much, ‘We’ve got to do away with it, got to do away with it’ but maybe, ‘What can we do to make it even more conservative?’" he said.


Also Monday, Hutchinson released excerpts from the inauguration address he is scheduled to give Tuesday at noon on the Capitol steps. According to the prepared remarks, Hutchinson plans to call on legislators to set aside their differences and search for common ground.


The released portions of the speech also outline Hutchinson’s plan to create economic growth and jobs "by lowering our tax rates, starting with the middle class; by improving job skill training in our high schools and two-year colleges; by offering computer science in every high school; and by reducing the burden of unreasonable regulations on our businesses."