The Arkansas State Legislature convenes Monday in Little Rock to kick off the regular session of the 89th General Assembly and area legislators are gearing up for a busy two months.
The Commercial asked state representatives and senators who represent Pine Bluff and surrounding jurisdictions to comment on which issues they expected to spend the most time on over the course of the 60-day session and to point out any legislation that they hope to introduce or co-sponsor.
Sen. Bobby J. Pierce (D-27)
Bobby J. Pierce of Sheridan is the newly elected senator of District 27.
Pierce, a Democrat and three-term state representative, said that his primary job at least initially will be to become familiar with Senate protocol and to get used to being in the minority party.
“More than anything I plan to listen,” Pierce said. “My wife is a school teacher and she says that I need to listen because God gave us two ears and only one mouth for a reason. Since I’m new to the Senate it will take some time to get the lay of the land and find out how things get done. Democrats are no longer in the majority so that will take some adjustment as well. I’m the Minority Whip but it’s going to be a different ballgame.”
Pierce said he expects the proposed expansion of the state Medicaid program and the $135 million budgetary shortfall that exists with that program to be the topic that takes center stage next week.
Rep. Ken Bragg (R-15)
Ken Bragg of Sheridan is the newly elected state representative of District 15.
Bragg, a Republican, said he anticipates a significant amount of time to be devoted to the Medicaid shortfall, Medicaid expansion and the creation of an insurance exchange.
“The Medicaid shortfall has been accumulating for several years and Medicaid expansion is intended to bring people in who are not already enrolled,” Bragg said. “People are saying that we need to expand Medicaid in order to deal with the budgetary shortfall. There are other sources of money that could be used to address the shortfall.”
Bragg said he expects education to take center stage at some point, as well.
“I have concerns about the adult education program, which has not had a funding increase for 20 years,” Bragg said. “I will probably be co-sponsoring some legislation related to adult education.”
Rep. Henry ‘Hank’ Wilkins, IV (D-17)
Hank Wilkins of Pine Bluff represents District 17 and has been serving constituents as either a state representative or a state senator continuously since the 1990s.
Wilkins, a Democrat, is eager to see the expansion of health insurance coverage to several hundred thousand currently uninsured Arkansans come to fruition.
“Our overarching largest issue has to do with Medicaid and Medicaid expansion,” Wilkins said. “So far a lot of Republican legislators have been against it but the reality is that Obama has been re-elected and it is clear that health care reform is here to stay. Studies show that it will have a multimillion dollar positive effect on the Arkansas economy.”
Wilkins said that at the local level he plans to work hard to further the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] Academy at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
“I will be working in the Legislature to build support for the STEM Academy building project at UAPB,” Wilkins said. “We have such a disparity of representation of African-American and minority students in STEM courses and majors and this is a problem across the state. UAPB is poised to be able to help the state address that disparity.”
Rep. James L. Word (D-16)
James Word of Pine Bluff represents District 16 and is beginning his third term as a state representative.
Word is in agreement with his colleagues that the potential expansion of Medicare coverage in Arkansas will be a key part of the new legislative session.
“Coming to some sort of agreement on the Medicaid expansion plan will be the most difficult piece of legislation that we will deal with,” Word said. “We will be adding 250,000 people to Medicaid. I know that by 2014 we should have a type of health care exchange program ready to implement.”
Word has several pieces of legislation he plans to have a part in.
“I have a bill that will address the fact that Arkansas is one of only four states in the country without landlord-tenant laws,” Word said. “I also plan to co-sponsor a bill that addresses the recidivism rate for prisons with so many who are released ending up back in prison within a short period of time.”
Rep. Mike Holcomb (D-10)
Mike Holcomb of Pine Bluff is the newly elected state representative of District 10.
Holcomb, a Democrat, plans to do what he can to stem the tide of longtime businesses leaving Arkansas.
“We have incentives to bring new businesses to the state but we don’t have incentives for those that have been here for a number of years,” Holcomb said. “We need to take care of the jobs that we have here.”
Holcomb said he would like to do what he can to relax some of the bidding regulations for larger counties in the state.
“The bidding cap is too low,” Holcomb said. “The cap hasn’t been lifted in the last seven or eight years and of course the cost of things like gas and steel have gone up in that time.”
Holcomb believes that any Medicaid expansion negotiations must include ideas on how to fund the program in future years as the federal share drops and more is expected of the state.
Rep. Sheila Lampkin (D-9)
Sheila Lampkin of Monticello represents District 9 and is beginning her second year in the House.
Lampkin, a Democrat, is a member of the education committee this session and plans to use her position to push for ways to lower the number of students in need of remedial courses once they enter college.
“I am a retired teacher and so I am working on things to help kids,” Lampkin said. “We also need to look at our technical schools because we need qualified workers. Not everyone needs or wants to go to college.”
Lampkin said she believes the expansion of Medicare is extremely important for many of her constituents who are currently uninsured.
Rep. Chris Richey (D-12)
Chris Richey of Helena is the newly elected representative of District 12, which includes eastern Lincoln County.
Richey, a Democrat, believes that Medicaid expansion would be a financial benefit to struggling areas of the state by insuring many of the people who are currently putting a financial strain on rural hospitals.
“I would like to see an extension of state control of struggling school districts beyond the current two- year maximum to allow enough time for problems to be fixed,” Richey said of legislation he is interested in. “I would also like to see school board elections moved to the same day as general elections to increase voter turnout.”