Focus of Legislative Leaders as Session Begins

Few people listen to the opening speeches of Arkansas’ legislative leaders, other than those of us who spend time in the state capitol and the political junkies who listen in over the internet.  Maybe it is not the most entertaining or consequential thing taking place but if you are interested in Arkansas politics the speeches are a good indication of the tone that will be set by the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate.

The speeches last week by Speaker Matthew Shepherd and Pro Tempore Jim Hendren were interesting because of the contrast in focus.

Mathew Shepherd

Much of Speaker Shepherd’s focus was on being “thankful.” He began by expressing his thanks to God and continued with a long list of thanks ranging from his family, to the people of his district, to his fellow legislators who entrusted him with the office of Speaker.  And he reminded his fellow Representatives to be thankful for the people who gave them the opportunity to serve in the House.

“Service” was the other major theme of his speech.

Too often I believe we’ve allowed the supposed significance of our position to go to our heads, that we’ve confused political challenges with real world challenges, that we’ve expected everything to go our way around here.  But truthfully we’re not entitled to anything.

We come here from the four corners of this state to do the people’s business.  And as long as we remember who we work for, the people of Arkansas, and that this institution, the people’s house, is not here for us, I believe we will come a lot closer to meeting the expectations for which Arkansans 145 years ago thanked God for the privilege of choosing.

In short, our service is not about me.  It’s not about you.  It’s about the people of Arkansas.

Pretty awesome.  If legislators live up to that, regardless of political ideology, it should be a good legislative session.

Jim Hendren

President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren also mentioned being thankful and a focus on service but he had something else on his mind – Senate corruption and the resulting criticism by the public.

Using these themes as a backdrop, his was a “circle the wagons” speech, to rally the Senators to him. Hendren’s enemy in the speech was the demons of supposed organizations on the left and right who think all Senators are bad people.

In fact, we have some organizations on the left and the right that are obsessed with feeding the hatred that many have for those in public service.  They would have you believe that the legislature is a wholly corrupt institution run by corrupt, evil people. Let me be very clear about this point.  The notion that all members are corrupt is a lie.  Those that would portray us all as corrupt, self-serving politicians are pandering to the worst in people.

What the heck is he talking about? Maybe, in his mind any criticism of legislation, criticism of deceptive methods to pass legislation, or any mention of ethics loopholes equals an attack on all legislators.

Despite a bit of bunker mentality in the speech, to Hendren’s credit he raised Senate’s tarnished reputation as an issue.  Several recent convictions, guilty pleas, and indictments have had as their focus state senators.

While we cannot change the events that occurred, we can learn from them, and we can certainly control the events that happen from here forward.  To all of us here today, the 92nd General Assembly, let us begin this session of the General Assembly today with a determination that the culture of greed and corruption is over.  We will not participate in it.  We will not ignore it, and we will not tolerate those who do.

Hendren went overboard in trying to distinguish the current membership from the bad eggs we have been reading about in the press.

Unfortunately, the work the legislature is charged with doing has been overshadowed for several years by mistakes, misdeeds, corruption, and even illegal actions by a small but not negligible group of our former colleagues.

What was not acknowledged in the speech is that the culture of corruption continued because many good legislators were too hesitant to insist on stricter ethics disclosure laws and laws to prohibit self-dealing by public officials, and because they were too hesitant to confront colleagues (who they must work with).

It is good that Hendren is talking about reforming the Senate. Hopefully, the focus won’t just be on mere self-monitoring by the Senate. We are still hopeful that the legislature will pass meaningful reform by:

  • Requiring by law that Medicaid providers disclose financial relationships with legislators. Senator Hendren voted against the disclosure requirement for Medicaid providers in 2017 but we hope the events of the last two years have changed his mind and he will push passage of the requirement; and
  • Prohibiting by law legislator-attorneys and legislator-consultants from representing clients before the legislature. Senator Hendren voted for a bill to prohibit such self-dealing in 2017 but the bill did not pass the Senate.

After the speeches

The speeches show a contrast in focus and style of these leaders, yet they will likely agree on most issues. Remember the House and Senate agree on over a thousand new laws every regular session. (For example, in 2017 Regular Session there 1127 new laws were passed.)