The legislature opened ceremonially today and events included the re-election of Rep. Jeremy Gilliam as House speaker. He accepted the post with a call to collaboration and civility.
There’d been a rumor among lobbyists of a potential empty challenge to Gillam’s re-election. It didn’t materialize and the vote to re-elect Gillam was unanimous. He’s the fifth person to serve a second time as House speaker, the House staff said.
In a brief speech, Gillam thanked God and family and also quoted Abraham Lincoln in urging members to respect people with “different points of view.” He made no specific reference to political party or bipartisanship, but he’s expected to put some Democrats (or former Democrats) in committee leadership and likely to continue his practice of working with some Democrats on legislative issues at times. He said there were negative consequences in “silencing some of the greatest minds in the state by refusing to consider their ideas.”
He urged members to be “creative, collaborative and civil.” He said it would be a stronger body if all were treated with respect and professionalism.
He lauded the ability to draw on “institutional memory” thanks to a higher level of seniority in the House thanks to the extension of term limits in an constitutional amendment adopted in 2014 that increased maximum House service from six to 16 years.
Speaking of institutional memory: I talked at some length today with Karen Hopper of Mountain Home, whose time as a Republican member of the House was ended in 2014 by term limits. Hopper instigated the legislative audit that turned up gross mismanagement and questionable expenditures, including of General Improvement Fund money, by the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District. She had plunged deeply into the agency’s operation because of contradictory explanations from leadership on policies and failure of the agency to deliver on funding in her own district. She attended meetings. She referred findings to auditors. She questioned officials. (She learned, for example, that a staged presentation of a check for help to an agency serving the elderly in her district was a sham. The agency got less money than the check represented.) Leadership of that agency is gone now as a result and, last week, former state Rep. Micah Neal pleaded guilty to taking kickbacks from GIF money he’d sent to the development agency to pass along to a private college and a nonprofit health agency.
Most believe that the audit, released in early 2015, helped put in motion events that led to last week’s federal charge and promise still more news. Hopper said she’d never sought publicity for her work at the time and took some satisfaction that her work demonstrated that legislators can make a difference. As a retired public college administrator, she, like others, had questions at the time about sending state money to private entities, such as the church college in Springdale that Neal helped, and particularly, a wholesale grocer in Missouri that got $600,000 in GIF money, apparently for outstanding bills for food sent to a program for the elderly. That’s a payment that, though criticized in the audit, still hasn’t been fully explained.
I’ll add a full rundown of the committee leadership announced in the House when the list is released, but, as expected, two recent party switchers got the committee chairmanships they’d been expected to get — Joe Jett at Revenue and Taxation and Jeff Wardlaw at Public Health. Another former Democrat who had left teh party earlier, Mike Holcomb, leads Transportation. Another switcher, David Hillman, has a vice chair position. Blue Hog Report gives the party switchers a hiding here.
NOTED: Vice chair at Rev and Tax is also a Republican, not a Democrat as might be otherwise in order. Payback, perhaps, for the Dems stacking an 11-member majority on the committe, a strategy blown up when Jett bolted the party because he hadn’t been informed by other Democrats of the plan to take over the committee he chaired the last session.
The Senate also met to seat new members and formally ratify the earlier selection of Sen. Jonathan Dismang for another term as president pro tempore of the Senate. Legislation began rolling across the desk, too.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson will speak to the General Assembly tomorrow.