Arkansas lawmakers say education top issue as session starts

Arkansas lawmakers gather in the House of Representatives chamber at the state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark. on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. The state Legislature convened for the first day of the 2023 session, a day before Sarah Huckabee Sanders was set to be sworn in as the state’s 47th governor. (AP Photo/Andrew DeMillo)

Arkansas lawmakers kicked off their annual legislative session Monday, with Republicans enjoying expanded supermajorities and embracing an agenda by incoming Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders that calls for overhauling the state’s education system.

House and Senate leaders called the education legislation, as well as income tax cuts and public safety measures being pushed by Sanders, their top priorities as they convened. Sanders, who served as press secretary in former President Donald Trump’s White House, was set to be sworn in as the state’s 47th governor on Tuesday.

“When you look to most of the members in terms of what they’re talking about, it really aligns with what the governor-elect talks about,” House Speaker Matthew Shepherd told reporters.

Sanders has said she wants the education legislation approved first. Sanders has also said she wants to begin phasing out the state’s income tax and a public safety plan that includes a new prison.

Legislative leaders said they expected to take up any tax cuts toward the end of the session.

Arkansas’ revenue has been coming in higher than expected, and the state is sitting on more than $2 billion in reserves. The head of the Senate panel that will take up any cuts said the proposals should be considered after lawmakers take up the education and public safety plans.

“We have to get a good handle on it,” Republican Sen. Jimmy Hickey, who chairs the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee, said.

Democrats saw their ranks shrink in the Legislature in November after the predominantly Republican state shifted further right. The GOP holds 82 seats in the 100-member House and 29 seats in the 35-member Senate.

Democratic Sen. Greg Leding, the Senate’s minority leader, said some areas where his party can find agreement with Sanders include the teacher pay raises she said she wants in the education overhaul. Democrats are concerned about other initiatives, including proposals to allow public funds to pay for private schooling and home schooling.

But Leding acknowledged that Democrats are “clear eyed about the political reality of the moment.”

Arkansas lawmakers are also expected to take up abortion legislation, though the procedure is banned in the state. The state’s ban took effect when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade last year.

One proposal would require companies that pay for employees’ abortions or abortion-related travel to also provide 16 weeks maternity leave for employees who are state residents. Democrats have said they also want to add rape and incest exemptions to Arkansas’ ban, which permits abortion only to save the mother’s life.

The Legislature also may join other GOP states in taking up efforts to restrict drag shows, which have been targeted by right-wing activists and politicians around the U.S. A bill filed Monday would ban drag performances from public property and would classify businesses that show them as adult-oriented businesses.

Sanders is succeeding Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is leaving due to term limits after serving eight years in office. Hutchinson is considering running for president.