The Arkansas Senate makes for good television, doesn’t it? From screaming matches to legislators storming out of committee meetings, we taxpayers have had front-row seats to the drama these last few sessions.
But that’s just the issue. We don’t pay the senators’ per diem to give us entertainment. We pay them to legislate. Compared to the House, where Speaker Shepherd runs a tight ship on the floor and committee meetings are brisk, the Senate gets bogged down with ego, drama, and political performance.
What’s behind the Senate theatrics? There are three things driving the drama.
Hester’s slack hand
First, Senate President Pro Tempore Bart Hester has never done the job before. In fairness, wrangling the big personalities in the Senate takes experience and top notch management skills, and we shouldn’t necessarily expect Hester to hit a home run the first go-around.
However, Hester didn’t help himself by bending over backwards to rubber stamp whatever Governor Sanders proposed this session, including supporting her reversal over the mask ban court cases. He seemed hesitant at times on LEARNS, but ultimately he couldn’t stand up to Sanders’ bullying. Nor could Hester prevent pointless soapbox speeches from colleagues on the floor. The Senate needs a firmer, more experienced hand to keep Sanders at bay and the personalities in check.
Senate’s obsession with Sanders
Second, the Senate seems to defer to Huckabee Sanders far too much. Formerly independent-minded conservatives, like Breanne Davis, spent session kowtowing to the Sanders agenda. Davis sponsored LEARNS and served as Sanders’ attack dog during the committee fights surrounding the bill. Hester, too, started this session stating that Sanders would get carte blanche from the Senate body.
The Constitution conceived of two branches of government, but in Arkansas it seems the Senate is an extension of the executive office. If the Senate does the bidding of the executive branch, it cannot respond to us — its direct constituents — because they’re worried about getting steamrolled by Sanders.
Wretched, dueling divas
Third and perhaps most dramatic, the Senate has fewer members than the House, so every individual gets more time in front of the camera. This began long ago, but when former Senator Bob Ballinger joined former Senators Trent Garner and Jason Rapert in 2019, the three seemed to compete for who could embarrass the Senate most.
From Rapert’s anti-abortion antics to Ballinger’s ridiculous “stand your ground” law in 2021 to Garner’s support of the January 6, 2021 insurrection, the trio took pleasure in gumming up the works of the Senate through bloviation and unworkable legislation that catered to the worst of their base.
Thankfully none of them remain in the Senate (Ballinger was unseated by a primary challenge from his own party, which did make us laugh), but their attitudes of obstruction, disdain, and arrogance have spread.
Now, senators like Dan Sullivan have taken up the trio’s depraved mantle by throwing book bans and pronoun policing on the pile of unneeded legislation. The damage Ballinger, Rapert, and Garner did will take years to undo, and now this kind of unhinged rhetoric is expected from the Arkansas Senate.
We deserve better, more careful senators who are there to do good work, like Missy Irvin did with rural education and healthcare. We hope some of the others will take notes from her.