Monday, January 10, 2011

Let the lawmaking begin

Posted By on Mon, Jan 10, 2011 at 2:06 PM

Anybody got a credit card? Arkansas legislators are in town and they're looking thirsty after a hard day of swearing-in festivities. What with potential for more snow tonight, I'm sure most will be staying in Little Rock and wouldn't mind somebody to pick up a check for dinner and drinks. They only make $15,000 or so a year — and $25,000 to $35,000 in per diem and expenses.

Robert Moore and Paul Bookout will lead the House and Senate, respectively, and were ceremonially installed. Moore brought in his old buddy, former Democratic Chair Bynum Gibson, now a circuit judge in Monticello, to do the honors.

Moore, as is the House rule, named committee chairs. They included four Republicans: Jonathan Barnett for Transportation; Davy Carter at Revenue and Taxation; Stephanie Malone for Children and Youth and Les Carnine for Joint Retirement.

Gerard Matthews was on hand. There's more on the jump, including comments from Moore's press conference following the day's ceremonies and a report on a surprise appearance by singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver. Yes, you read that correctly.

In an interview with reporters after all the formalities had been disposed of, newly-sworn-in Speaker of the House Robert Moore once again talked about his priorities for the legislative session, including finding a revenue stream for state highways, updating the state’s water plan and prison reform. The speaker also called for cooler heads to prevail during the session, saying legislators needed to focus on issues that affect all Arkansans.

“That’s an item that will be critical to future economic development,” Moore said of highway funding. “It’s going to be a tough one because it’s going to take additional funding and we’re going to have to find out where we’re going to get it.”

Moore has said before that prison reform would be a priority in the upcoming session. When pressed on what that might look like in practice, Moore said one piece of the puzzle would definitely be rethinking the way we sentence drug offenders.

“Our sentencing laws certainly will be part of the package. We’ve seen a trend over the last 20 years that we’re just going to lock them up longer, and this is going to help take care of the problem. People will be more afraid of getting locked up. The problem seems to be that when people are using drugs they’re not thinking very clearly so that deterrent effect isn’t working. We need to do what other states have done - different intervention levels, we need to use alternative-type sentencing techniques like the drug courts, which have worked well, community programs for assessed low-risk, repeat offenders. We need to do things to divert people out of the prison system and prison beds that have shown to not be violent offenders… We need to do a better job of distinguishing who we’re afraid of and who we’re mad at.”

The new speaker also addressed looming water issues in the state (which we have written about before) and the move, some time in the future, from a reliance on ground water to the use of surface water.

“The state water plan, this is one of those that is sort of a difficult issue to focus proper attention on because everybody has access to plenty of water every morning or a place to go fish or enjoy recreation. I represent a district that’s heavy agriculture and as long as we’re pumping water out of the ground or have adequate resources to water crops then it’s kind of out of sight-out of mind. But that’s not the case. There are some critical issues resolving our use of ground water. Having the funding to do what we need to do, right now, is not as essential as getting a plan updated with targeted funding in the future for the conversion to surface water, which we are blessed with here in Arkansas, as an alternative use from ground water.”

Toward the end of the interview, Moore, who had referenced the recent shooting in Arizona in his remarks to representatives, said legislators would need to work together and tackle issues that face all Arkansans, not just niche groups.

Moore was also asked about a bill by Rep. Donna Hutchinson that would distribute General Improvement Funds evenly across legislative districts in the state. Moore said he did not support that bill and trusted debate on the floor and in legislative committees to steer those funds where to projects and districts that most needed them.

Today’s ceremony kicked off on a lighter note. Renowned singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver started things off with an a cappella rendition of the national anthem before launching in to a couple of tunes of his own, at the request of legislators.

Shaver, a friend of Moore’s, got a few laughs when he started to sing the tune “The Get-Go,” which included the line “Politicians make promises that they can’t keep.” After a couple of verses, Shaver stopped the song, telling representatives, “You don’t want to hear the rest of that one.”

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