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Redistricting aside, the 2011 legislative session came to a close last Friday with both sides claiming victory and lauding bipartisanship in a process where the former was not absolute and the latter a little more professed than practiced. Speaker of the House Robert Moore said he and his party accomplished all their major goals for the session, citing a state water plan, a highway funding proposal, ethics legislation and prison reform. Republicans touted tax cuts and reduced spending (though, overall, spending increased).
At the close of the session on Friday, Moore credited his accomplishments to a decision he made nearly four months ago, the selection of committee chairmanships.
"I don't know whether it was luck or instinct or if I really knew what I was doing, but to a person, I had the right people in the right places on the chair," Moore said. "I think the three that dealt with the toughest issues were Clark Hall in [House] State Agencies dealing with the redistricting and the constitutional amendments, Linda Tyler in [House] Public Health with a myriad of contentious issues before that committee and Darrin Williams on [House] Judiciary who had the same thing, just a huge agenda with tremendous items of importance to so many people, but items that tended to divide."
Tyler, D-Conway, chaired a Public Health Committee that heard 11 bills on abortion, from a measure aimed at prohibiting the procedure after 20 weeks to a proposal to impose stricter standards on the state's only clinic that provides surgical abortions. Only one, a bill that would require a clinic that performed over 10 procedures in a year to be regulated by the state Health Department, was approved.
Although Tyler says she feels strongly about the issue, she credits the committee for asking tough questions and not shying away from a controversial debate.
"I wish it was such that women would not make those decisions," Tyler says. "But I believe that a woman has the right to make that decision and it's between a woman, her doctor, her family and her God and it should not be something that government should be involved in."
Rep. John Burris of Harrison, the Republican minority leader, agrees that Moore made good use of chair appointments, although he may take issue with some of the outcomes.
"Even though there are certain rules in terms of the majority of the committee voting a bill out, the interpretation of those rules is ultimately up to the chair," Burris says. "There are rules that govern the system, but it's the chair's job to apply and interpret those rules and for that reason, the position is very important. I think you saw that a lot in Public Health."
Burris praised Moore for his ability to work with the Republican Caucus and touted his GOP picks to head committees like House Revenue and Tax, where Republican Davy Carter was the chair.
"During the speaker's race the agreement was always that Republicans would have equal representation in committee chairs, so it was never a question of the number of chairs but who would fill those spots," Burris says. "Putting Davy Carter in Revenue and Tax was a good move because he's certainly widely respected. Everybody likes him, but more than that they trust him. I think it was very smart to put him in there and say, 'Okay this is your committee,' and put someone there he could trust to do a fair job and sort of act as a bridge."
Carter, of Cabot, says he and Moore had a "very professional relationship," but the two, obviously, didn't agree on everything.
"I certainly felt more responsibility, having the chair," Carter says. "I was primarily focused on tax cuts and spending, along with a lot of other Republican members. From that standpoint, I'm satisfied on how the math worked out in the end... Probably the most difficult position I was in during the session, was over the diesel tax. The speaker, that was one of his priorities and I did not support that."
House Judiciary Chair Darrin Williams, D-Little Rock, says that Moore was hands-off and the real work was done by the committees themselves.
"I don't remember a time when the speaker said to me as committee chair, 'We need to kill this bill.' I think the committee process did that. I think we stopped some bills that should have been stopped and there were some that, quite frankly, I wish we would have stopped and we didn't stop."
Williams' committee heard a number of contentious bills including open-carry gun legislation, which was defeated, and the so-called "guns in church" bill which Williams personally opposed. It cleared his committee, but failed in the Senate.
"I did not try to play partisan politics in committee," he says. "When there was a call that I had to make, for example on a voice vote, I called what I heard. When there were two hands for a roll call, we called the roll. I didn't do that fast play."
In his speech before the House on Friday, Moore touted Burris's ability to work with Democratic leadership. Burris said communication between the two parties was better than expected, although there were some "shouting and cussing matches."
"It was working relationship where I advocated for what I believed in and [Moore] did the same and at the end of the day he got a lot of what he wanted and I got a lot of what we wanted," Burris says.
Ultimately, the policies put in place by both parties will be judged by voters. Moore says he thinks decisions reached in the 2011 session "speak well for Democrats."
"We came in during what everyone thought was the most contentious of times, we took care of our business, we didn't leave anything unattended," he said. "Everything I asked them to do at the first of the session, we accomplished that... However, as you know, the leadership was diverse. I had a number of Republicans in leadership positions and their contributions were felt. I've told the assembly, all of the members, that we do a good job, we do it effectively and in an efficient time manner and everybody goes home and they can put the spin on it they want to. But we've done good collectively, and I think it bodes well for the Democratic Party."
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