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State GOP protests House rule change

Party seeks reversal of lawmakers’ plan to let speaker pick panel members by Brian Fanney | July 30, 2017 at 4:28 a.m.

The Republican Party of Arkansas on Saturday delivered a rebuke to a change championed by the state House speaker -- a member of the party -- and adopted by the Republican-controlled House during the past legislative session.

During the party's summer state committee meeting on Saturday, members approved a resolution by the Benton County Republican Committee asking for a change in how legislative committee membership is chosen in the House. By a large majority, state Republican committee members voted to ask the House to return to using seniority in committee selections, but guarantee the dominant political party a commensurate number of seats on each committee.

Supporters of the resolution criticized new rules pushed by House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, during the regular session that grant the House speaker the power to appoint committee members.

"We are vesting more and more power into one person, and I believe part of our party principle is to spread that," said Rep. Mickey Gates, R-Hot Springs. "I don't want to negotiate my principles -- or anything else -- or create another system where I have to go politic just to get on a committee."

After the meeting, Republican Party of Arkansas Chairman Doyle Webb said in an interview that party members wanted better representation on the House committees.

"There's concerns among the grass roots that they worked to elect a majority in the Legislature and -- as we have stated in our platform -- we wish that would be reflected in the committee makeup and in the chairmanship and it has not occurred at this point," he said. "We understand that there's still some study going on for the future, but the committee wanted to express itself again."

However, opponents of the resolution said the matter had been handled by Republican lawmakers.

"If the only arbiter of that decision-making process is that seniority number, I don't see how you get people where they need to be," Gillam said in a phone interview Saturday. Gillam wasn't at the meeting. "Democracy should have a little bit more forethought going into it than a random draw out of a bowl."

Freshman lawmakers pick their seniority number out of a bowl to determine their rank.

Gillam said he believes that if the Republican committee had been able to see the research that House members saw during the debate in January, they would have made a different decision. Additionally, Gillam said the resolution adopted Saturday recommends a system that would limit geographic diversity on committees.

"It's House business, and the House will determine the rules at the end of the day," he said. "When we changed the rules, we did so very deliberately. There's zero states in the entire country that use the seniority system [recommended by the Republican committee], and there's a reason for that."

During the state Republican meeting, Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, lamented how arbitrary seniority selection is. House Majority Leader Mathew Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, referred to the "near fiasco that we had" under the old seniority system for picking committee members.

The new rules were adopted after Democrats managed to split control of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, which reviews tax-related policy, although they hold only 24 of the 100 House seats.

Because representatives adopted the rule change after committees had been selected, Gillam has not yet used his new power to pick committee membership.

The Democrats' move angered Republicans, and the Arkansas Senate later changed its rules to ensure that the majority party has a majority in all standing Senate committees.

Bills are initially assigned to House or Senate committees for consideration. Those committees determine what bills move to the full House or Senate for votes. If a bill stalls in a committee, two-thirds of lawmakers in the full House or Senate can vote to extract it, although that power is rarely used.

The debate over committee selection proved to be the most contentious part of Saturday's meeting.

Earlier in the meeting, Gov. Asa Hutchinson ruminated on next year's elections and the Republican Party's strengths.

Midterms are historically tough for the party in charge, the governor said.

He told the crowd to share Republican accomplishments on the federal level -- Neil Gorsuch's placement on the U.S. Supreme Court, Environmental Protection Agency rules rolled back, deregulation and economic growth.

At the state level, Hutchinson touted tax cuts, a historically low unemployment rate, state employee reduction and foster care improvements.

But he warned Republicans that not everyone is getting the message. He told the story of a woman who approached him at an event and asked to give him a hug.

"I thought she wanted to brag on all the great things that we did and express appreciation," the governor said. "She gave me a warm and tender hug. She stepped away and said, 'Now just who are you?'"

Saturday's meeting followed the party's annual Reagan-Rockefeller Dinner on Friday. The event attracted about 650 people and raised between $300,000 and $400,000, Webb said.

The dinner was closed to the media because its speaker -- Jeanine Pirro of Fox News -- had a clause in her contract that prohibits her from speaking at open-press events, Webb said.

Democrats had their annual fundraiser -- for the first time called the Clinton Dinner -- on July 23. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards served as the keynote speaker.

Metro on 07/30/2017

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