Posted 2/24/2013 05:26 pm
Updated 10 months ago
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — It's not the economy. It's the social issues.
Despite campaign pledges to cut taxes and focus on the economy, the new Republican majority in Arkansas' Legislature has turned into a bigger boon for social conservatives than fiscal ones. Restrictions on abortions, eased gun laws and even a proposal to allow the study of the Bible at public schools are easily winning support in the Legislature now that Republicans control the Legislature for the first time in 138 years.
Abortion opponents and gun rights supporters are relishing their biggest string of victories in years. But Republicans and Democrats alike in the Legislature are battling the perception, if not the reality, that they're spending more time on guns and abortion than jobs and schools.
The leaders of the House and Senate headed into this year's session saying their focus was on Arkansas' budget and the future of the state's Medicaid program. With questions unanswered about how much flexibility Arkansas could have in crafting a compromise on Medicaid expansion, the issue remains in a holding pattern.
Budget and tax matters appear to be in the same pattern so far this session, but lawmakers from both parties hope that's about to change.
"We expected to see those (social issues) right out of the gate, but we had also hoped to see more focus on jobs, education and health care," House Minority Leader Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said last week.
Venting frustration about the focus on social issues is a delicate balancing act for Democrats. Many of the socially conservative measures are winning support from Democrats, including abortion bans that won support from about half the party's caucus in both chambers.
Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe has also been careful to not wade too deeply into some of the contentious social issues. For example, he's cast his opposition to legislation banning abortions 12 weeks into a pregnancy more as a legal issue than one over reproductive rights. And the abortion restriction he's already signed into law — a ban on the procedure being covered by the insurance exchange created under the federal health care law — was sponsored by a Democrat.
Beebe has also ducked high-profile fights with legislators over gun issues. He signed into law a measure allowing concealed handguns in churches, and announced last week he'd allow legislation exempting the state's concealed carry list from the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act to go into law without his signature — but Lt. Gov. Mark Darr signed the bill Friday while Beebe was out of the state. The governor has also said he'll likely sign legislation allowing faculty and staff to carry concealed weapons on college campuses after it was changed to allow schools to opt out.
Mindful of the divisions within their own party on social issues such as abortion and gun rights, Democratic leaders in both chambers aren't criticizing their own members for breaking ranks on the issues and instead are focusing on the lack of movement on other key areas.
"Certainly those social issues are so very important to so many, but education and jobs are important to everybody," said Senate Minority Leader Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis.
A pivot away from social issues may be on the way. Lawmakers face a tight deadline to review and a $125 million proposed financing plan to land a steel plant in northeast Arkansas, and legislative leaders say they hope to soon begin talks on competing tax cut proposals.
"The idea that we're only doing social issues will fade away as these other issues emerge," said Senate President Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville.
But education and job issues may still face an uphill fight for attention from lawmakers. Several contentious issues, including a push to allow open carry of handguns, remain pending in the Legislature. And Beebe has yet to say whether he'll veto a bill lawmakers sent him last week that would ban most abortions 20 week into a pregnancy.
House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, has defended the Legislature and says lawmakers are working on jobs, education and Medicaid even if those issues aren't dominating the headlines the same way the guns and abortions proposals are.
But, he's quick to add: "I'm ready to move on and start dealing with these other issues."