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Arkansas lawmakers begin 2023 legislative session

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Arkansas Legislature
Arkansas House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, is administered the oath of office by his father, U.S. Circuit Judge Bobby Shepherd, on the House floor Monday.

Legislators returned to the Arkansas State Capitol Monday to formally kick off this year’s legislative session.

Members of the Senate and House of Representatives were sworn in and assigned to committees. In the House, lawmakers voted unanimously to appoint Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, to a record third term as speaker.

Shepherd alluded to embattled U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in accepting the nomination.

“I think I speak for more than just myself when I say thank you for selecting me your speaker on the first ballot and not the 15th ballot,” Shepherd said. "This body prides itself in not reflecting D.C. politics, and we're off to a great start once again."

Republicans have a supermajority in both the House and Senate for this year’s session. Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, was elected Senate President Pro Tempore by unanimous consent, meaning no one else was nominated for the position.

"The good news is, not one of us in this room is okay with a third of our students reading at grade level. No one in this room is okay with violent, repeat offenders walking our streets... no one in this room wants to pay any more taxes than they currently have to pay," Hester said. "So today we officially begin the debate with how we're going to overcome these challenges this session."

Despite a letter signed by over 50 Republicans asking for Shepherd not to appoint Democrats to any committee chair or vice-chair positions, three Democrats were tapped for leadership positions in Monday's meeting.

With many longtime lawmakers not returning to the Capitol this year, Shepherd noted the shifting demographics of the body saying 21 new House members are 40 years of age or younger.

"Conversely, we have members who have been serving in this body for over a decade... the span of generations and experience in this body can serve Arkansas well if we listen to one another without judgment, and with a genuine search for one another's perspective," Shepherd said.

Lawmakers return to the Capitol Tuesday to vote on appropriations bills and to hear remarks from Gov.-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders shortly before her inauguration.

Daniel Breen is a Little Rock-based reporter, anchor and producer for KUAR.
Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for UA Little Rock Public Radio.