Weeks after the Arkansas state legislature officially adjourned, its leaders are pleased with the work it accomplished during its almost 90 days of session. During a meeting of the Political Animals Club on Wednesday, Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, called this past session the "most productive one that I’ve been a part of."
"I’ve never seen five or six major tasks get accomplished like we did this time and I think it kind of speaks to the tone of the session," Hendren said. He credited the working relationship between the House and the Senate as well as doing the needed work to pass larger bills like tax reform as some reasons for the successful session.
"Some of those issues were issues that I assure you we never would have accomplished had we not spent two years studying it," Hendren said. "I would venture to say that 90 percent of the legislature never heard of a single sales factor or what it was, or how we apportion income for corporations." He cited the creation and later adoption of the highway plan as one of the best examples of collaboration he has seen.
"To be able to start with nothing and come out with the largest highway plan in the state’s history is really a remarkable accomplishment, and it was the product of a lot of reasonable people coming to the table and negotiating in good faith," Hendren said. House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, also credited collaboration as one of the reasons for its success.
"I can’t say enough about just the cooperative spirit on the House end. The fact that even when we disagreed on issues among members that it was always civil, it was always professional and that allowed us not to have disagreements carry over from one issue to the next," Shepherd said. Hendren and Shepherd both discussed the elimination of the bill filing deadline. According to Shepherd, the change gave mainly positive results.
"The initial numbers appear to be that we had less bills filed, but the passage rate for the bills filed was pretty high, around 65% if I’m remembering correctly. So I think that just reflects that in part, that the bills that were filed, many had been worked on and there had been a lot of work that went into them," Shepherd said. Hendren agreed on its success and was glad for the change. When asked about the most memorable aspects of the session, both Shepherd and Hendren talked about the bill signing ceremony for legislation replacing the statues representing Arkansas in the National Statuary Hall Collection in Washington D.C. to Johnny Cash and Daisy Bates. Shepherd said it was especially exciting to include Bates who is from his own county.
"To be able to be a part of something like that, that hopefully reflects who we are as a state and to think of being a part of helping to put a statue for somebody that stood for the right values," Shepherd said. The legislative leaders also commented on the recent opening of medical marijuana dispensaries, with the first one opening last Friday. Hendren addressed that while many legislators did not support the issue when it was on the ballot, the legislature remained committed to implementing the rules once it was passed.
"I was proud that the legislature came and did our legislative responsibility and to some criticism from some groups that traditionally support us that thought we should just thwart the will of the people and I just don’t think that that’s the way it works," Hendren said. "That’s not the oath that we take." As far as the delay in implementing the medical marijuana program, which voters approved in 2016, Hendren said he would rather Arkansas be right and late rather than early and wrong.
When asked about the effort to change the designation of a star on the state flag from the Confederacy, both agreed the conversation would likely continue next session, with Hendren believing the designation would eventually change at some point.