Does Leadership Change Signal More Conservative 2021 Legislature?
Some political insiders are saying the results of the legislature’s recent election of officers for 2021 is a sign the legislature is moving toward a more conservative agenda and therefore away from Governor Asa Hutchinson.
While there could be something to their observations, we have a different reason to think the 2021 legislature may embrace a more conservative agenda.
The Arkansas Senate and House of Representatives elected new officers for 2021. The two offices that drew the most attention are the election of Senator Jimmy Hickey (R-Texarkana) as President Pro Tempore of the Senate and Representative Austin McCollum (R-Bentonville) as the House Majority Party Leader.
The House leader (Speaker of the House) did not change. Representative Matthew Shepherd (R- El Dorado) was reelected to a second two-year term without opposition. After a rule change in the late 1990’s which made Speakers more powerful, several Speakers have been elected to two consecutive terms.
Both Hickey and McCollum won against an opponent who was presumed to be favored by the Governor. Some political insiders suggest the election of Senator Jimmy Hickey and Representative Austin McCollum shows the legislature is expressing its independence from Governor Asa Hutchinson and they hope that means the 2021 legislature may be open to a more conservative agenda than desired by Governor Hutchinson. Governor Hutchinson has about two- and one-half years left until term limits take him out of office. So far, he has been able to keep the legislature far to the left of the conservative campaign promises that were made by many.
If a reaction against the Governor was a factor in one of the legislature’s selections it is more likely to have been in the Senate where President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren has been his uncle Asa’s mouthpiece and enforcer. Hendren pushed through his uncle’s policies, such as continuation of Obamacare Medicaid Expansion and the overall increase in the tax burden in 2019.
There are also Republican legislators who are upset that Governor Hutchinson has injected himself into three straight Republican primaries to try to defeat the more conservative candidates.
AND THEN AGAIN, perhaps too much has been read into the election of officers. It could also have been a vote for the person the legislators thought had the better personality for being their leader.
If the legislature’s selections were about trying to regain some independence from the strong hand of the executive branch, it would be a good thing, no matter who is governor.
BUT, a move to exert independence from the Governor does not necessarily signal a shift toward the principles of the Republican platform. Why might it not herald a more conservative agenda?
First, in examining the voting records of the candidates in both of these races, they are not far apart. Looking at the Conduit for Commerce Scorecard Senators Hickey and Hester were in the top third of the Senate but Senator Hester’s ranking was more conservative than Senator Hickey’s. In the House Majority Leader race, Representative McCollum receive the highest conservative ranking of those who will return to the House but Representative Jim Dotson wasn’t far behind.
Second, Senator Hickey’s coalition was made up of some of the most conservative members of the Senate but also included the Democrat Senators. These odd bedfellows may indicate the election of Hickey was more about Senate independence than whether the Senate would become more conservative or liberal.
Third, the 2021 legislature will be basically the same legislature that followed the Governor in 2019 in approving an overall tax increase of about $54 million a year, despite some tax cuts, and agreed to approve Governor Hutchinson’s plan to refer a one half percent (0.50%) sales tax increase to a vote of the people in November.[i] Longer term limits for legislators and the power of incumbency means there will be little turn over in officeholders.
Fourth, the big influencers like the health care industry and Walmart haven’t changed.
Fifth, even as a lame duck, the Governor is powerful. The Governor has the appointments and jobs, and the money when picking whether state projects and grants happen in a legislator’s district. In fact, this time Governor Hutchinson will have a power that not all governors get to exercise. After the census, the Governor along with the Attorney General and Secretary of State will determine the boundaries the Senate and House districts from which all legislators will run in 2022.[ii] Redistricting has been used successfully to get rid of legislators who displease a governor by creating a district that the legislator is less likely to win in. (See How A Map Sidetracked Arkansas’ Republican Revolution.)
Returning our focus back to the House of Representatives, will Representative McCullum influence the House of Representatives to become more conservative or will the position help the establishment move him to be more like the establishment? We are reminded of past examples where the establishment has brought an outspoken legislator into the fold by giving him a leadership position as a way of getting him to be a “team player.” We are not saying that will happen here, but expect the establishment to try that play.
WHY CONDUIT THINKS THERE IS HOPE FOR 2021
We are cautiously optimistic the 2021 regular session of the Arkansas legislature will be better for conservatives in the state, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the election of the two officers.
Our optimism comes from the fact all senate seats will be up for election in 2020, whereas normally only half are up for election, and Senate and House districts will have different boundaries for 2022, which lessens the power of incumbency. Why does this matter for 2021? We think more Republican legislators will be trying to create a more conservative image through a better voting record. After voting for so many taxes in 2019 many will need the 2021 session to build a record in order to avoid strong opponents.
Even ole Governor Hutchinson may become a bit more open to conservative legislation in 2021. Hutchinson cannot run for reelection and is rumored to be running for some other office. Got to polish that image before running in a Republican primary in 2022.
[ii] There is a proposed initiative petition to take away legislative redistricting from the Governor, Attorney General, and Secretary of State, however, with social distancing now being the norm it seems unlikely enough signatures will be gathered for the proposal to get on the ballot.