HOT SPRINGS — Two days before the formal end of a Republican-controlled legislative session that focused heavily on gun rights and abortion restrictions, the GOP House speaker said Wednesday that Republicans in Arkansas and nationally will have to find other issues to rally around if they want to continue connecting with voters.
"If Republicans want to continue to stay in the majority in the state, and I think make some recovery nationally to be able to effectively govern, that has to stop being the primary issues that dominate the majority of what we talk about," House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, said during a legislative forum at the Arkansas Rural Development Conference. "Not that they are not important, but I don’t see those things being the leading issues that the people want to deal with every day."
Carter, who said he hoped to announce Thursday or Friday whether he will run for governor in 2014, said legislating should be more about working together, managing the budget, "doing all of these other things that are so very important."
He acknowledged his support for abortion restrictions and the 2nd Amendment but said he thinks most Arkansans want Republicans to champion budget and fiscal matters. The dominance of social issues for much of this year’s session "was so very frustrating to me. It just got out of control. I wish it hadn’t happened," he said.
He suggested that much of the legislation was filed to satisfy political supporters and questioned whether some of the sponsors really wanted some bills passed.
The Legislature, which recessed April 19 after 100 days, is to return to the Capitol on Friday for formal adjournment.
On Wednesday, Carter joined Reps. John Burris, R-Harrison, Ann Clemmer, R-Benton, and Fred Love, D-Little Rock, and Sens. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy and Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, to discuss issues from the session at the rural development conference at the Hot Springs Convention Center.
Dismang and Burris said though abortion and gun rights did receive a lot of media attention during the early weeks of the session, many lawmakers were working behind the scenes on a number of other important issues, including Medicaid expansion.
The Legislature eventually hammered out a plan to use Medicaid dollars to subsidize private insurance for thousands of low-income Arkansans. Lawmakers also adopted a $120 million bond issue and incentives for a $1.1 billion steel mill project in eastern Arkansas and passed tax cuts that will amount to $140 million in four years.
Still, former Democratic lawmaker Jim Luker of Wynne, who was attending the conference, suggested that the Legislature had created a "gun culture" in the state with all the gun bills debated this session.
Burris said even with the gun bills that passed, several others never got out of committee. He said many of his constituents elected him because he was for gun rights and against abortion.
Carter said he had to notify the state police during the session because of death threats some fellow lawmakers received because their votes on gun bills. He also said a photograph of his home with cross-hairs on it appeared online after he said during a news conference that he could not support and open-carry law without any regulations.
Burris, one of the leading Republican supporters of the private option for health care expansion, asserted that some House Democrats had hoped the proposal would fail so Republicans could be blamed.
"There were people in the House Democratic caucus that wanted us to mess up because they thought by not passing anything it would be better politics for them and might help them win the majority back in two years," he said. "There were people, serious legislators, that thought that and intentionally tried to sabotage this, and I think you had leadership from the governor’s office and also from the minority leader … and other people around him that made sure this didn’t become overly politicized and they let the process work process work and kept the main objective in mind, which was a better health care system that stabilized our budget."
Love, a member of the House Democratic Caucus, disputed Burris’ assertion.
"That’s the first I’ve ever heard of that, and it’s from a Republican," Love said, noting that all 48 Democrats in the House supported the legislation. .
Love and Elliott complained that the tax cuts approved by the legislature mostly favored the rich, with little was done to ease the tax burden on poor Arkansans.
"If you trying to achieve a balance, that forces us to look at the lower end and the higher end," Elliott said. "As far as I am concerned, there is no way in the world that we can make the case that what we passed in tax cuts was a collective of balanced measures."
Burris maintained the tax cuts were balanced and that income taxes were cut by 10 percent across every income bracket and that lawmakers approved Gov. Mike Beebe’s grocery tax cut, which depends on a series of triggers.