LITTLE ROCK — When the state House and Senate are called to order at noon Monday, Republicans will bang the gavel in both chambers for the first time since Reconstruction.
Senate Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, and House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, both acknowledge the significance of the historic political shift reflected their routine first official act as top leaders of the state’s newly Republican-led Legislature.
But they say the challenges lawmakers will face during the regular session of the 89th General Assembly are too complex for partisanship.
Republicans being in the majority after nearly 140 years of Democratic control is “a big unknown for a lot of people,” Lamoureux said last week.
“My goal is just to make sure the Senate works effectively and really, probably the biggest accomplishment we could have is if things (are not) all that different,” he said.
He said he appreciated the way Sen. Paul Bookout, D-Jonesboro, who was Senate pro tem during the 2011 regular session and 2012 fiscal session, valued the input of all senators and included both parties in leadership positions, and hopes he can be as efficient and successful.
“I think the way to acknowledge (the Republican majority) is to not make a big deal about this but to continue on with the way things have been done,” Lamoureux said. “The policies may be a little different but there are a lot of things that go into making sure things work, and I think we need to show that.”
Carter said cooperation will be key to making accomplishments this session.
“There are 40 new members in the House and everyone … is getting in, learning the roads, getting to know each other,” he said. “The members are really developing a lot of relationships with each other and, frankly, that was my No. 1 suggestion to all of them, go out and build relationships.
“We have some big decisions to make, a lot of big issues in front of the state that will be long-lasting decisions, particularly regarding Medicaid and certainly that will be the big elephant in the room.”
Addressing a projected $139 million Medicaid shortfall will be a top priority for lawmakers over the next several months, as will consideration of tax reductions and other major issues, along with balancing a nearly $5 billion state budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year.
The pace of session is expected to build slowly, as usual. Lawmakers’ workload this week will include taking the oath of office Monday, meeting in a joint session Tuesday to hear Gov. Mike Beebe’s state of the state address and organizing legislative committees.
“I think the first week will be for the most part dealing with those what I call ceremonial-type issues,” Carter said. “But we’re all looking forward to hearing the governor’s remarks on Tuesday.”
In his address to lawmakers, Beebe is expected to outline his objectives for the legislative session, including a further reduction in the state sales tax on groceries from 1 1/2 cents to one-eighth of a cent if certain budget savings are realized over the next several months. Lawmakers favor the governor’s tax proposal, in general, but some Republicans are considering proposals to reduce the state income tax and the sales tax manufacturers pay on utilities.
Lamoureux said the purpose of having committees organize Monday and Tuesday is so lawmakers can get down to work quickly.
“I don’t think there will be anything dramatic (this week), but hopefully we’ll maybe get started a little faster,” he said, adding that committees will probably begin reviewing legislation next week.
“I think we’ve got some guys that have pre-filed some bills and we may start to consider those is committee, but as far as surprises I really don’t seen anything (this week), he said. “Most of us are still focused on working on the Medicaid problems that we have and I’m not sure what the time line is when we start rolling out some new reform ideas there.”