Public perception good so far in Legislature

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Everything appears to be working smoothly with a Republican majority in the Arkansas House and Senate.

For anyone emerging from a cave, the state Legislature will be majority Republican in January for the first time since Reconstruction.

Incoming senators, of whom Republicans outnumber Democrats 21-14, met after the general election and picked a member of the majority party, Sen. Michael Lamoureux of Russellville, as Senate president pro tempore for the 2013-14 session. The Democrat in line to be pro tem, Larry Teague of Nashville, was gracious and welcomed Lamoureux. Also graciously, Lamoureux made sure Teague became co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, perhaps a more powerful position in some ways than being pro tem.

Then, Republicans used the same selection system for committee assignments the Democrats had used previously, which was the right way to do things.

Good for the Senate, Lamoureux and Teague — a public perception grade of A-plus.

The House has 51 Republicans among the 100 incoming members. One member was elected from the Green Party but is really a Democrat and the remaining 48 are Democrats — 51-48-1 is nowhere close to the majority Republicans expected, but still a majority.

The first order of business, even before the newly elected House members take the oath of office, was to settle the matter of the next House speaker. Traditionally, the House speaker election is held toward the end of a regular session and that person becomes known as speaker-designate. Because of term limits and the relatively short time members have to prepare an agenda, name committees, etc., the speaker traditionally has stepped aside following the session and allowed the speaker-designate to begin the transition process. The speaker-designate then was always confirmed by the new House following elections.

Always, until now.

Darrin Williams, a Democrat, was speaker-designate, but the new House voted not to uphold his election. It would have been historic if Williams had become speaker because he would have been the first-ever African-American to hold the post. But, history was made nonetheless by the election of a Republican, albeit not the Republican who had run against Williams previously.

Rep. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, lost originally to Williams, but drew a GOP opponent for speaker after Williams was unable to get a majority to confirm him. Enter Davy Carter, R-Cabot, who promised to represent all Arkansans and assured Democrats in behind-the-scene talks that he would assign Democrats and Republicans to leadership positions.

Rice made a last-minute plea to assure the same thing, but Carter had the votes. So, Rice became the only person in House history to be defeated twice for speaker in separate elections for the same session.

The House also gets a public perception A-plus. It followed protocol and elected someone from the majority who is expected to be inclusive.

The not-so-public perception is that it may be a contentious session involving Washington-style politics.

After last week’s column suggesting that Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe’s biggest problem would be finding a legislator who could lead the way he did when he was in the Senate, working and compromising with then-Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican friend/senator took exception, saying Beebe “drove a hard bargain” when he was in the Senate and seldom compromised because he had his votes lined up. He hinted that Beebe is situated differently as governor and his agenda for 2013 could meet with majority resistance in the Senate.

On the House side, there is evidence Republicans had planned a news conference to unveil a “my way or the highway” agenda right after the election, based on what they thought would be in the neighborhood of a 60-40 split. When it was 50 and one race still undecided (eventually the Republican was declared the winner) the news conference idea was scrapped.

So, bottom line, everybody is playing pretty in public right now. The question is whether it will continue when the Legislature goes into session in January.

Dennis A. Byrd, chief of the Arkansas News Bureau, has covered government and politics in Arkansas for more than 20 years. His e-mail address is

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