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The Republican caucus of the Arkansas House of Representatives has a new leader -- Rep. Marcus Richmond of Harvey, who just six years ago ended his bid for the U.S. House.

Richmond, 62, is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and a cattle farmer. He was president and chief executive officer of family-owned American Pet Registry, but his wife assumed those jobs so he could focus on legislative duties.

He predicts Republicans will strengthen their position in the state House.

"There is no 'blue wave' coming in the Arkansas House," he said in an interview last week when asked about a possible Democratic resurgence in this year's election.

"We have a few competitive races which we will win," said Richmond, who declined to say which ones.

"We intend to not only defend our majority, but add some seats to our caucus. As a retired Marine infantry officer, I believe leaving combat and politics to chance is a losing proposition. So I will always approach elections as if we are running behind," he said.

House Democratic leader David Whitaker of Fayetteville said he would like Democrats to pick up three to seven House seats. Any gains would reverse the trend favoring Republicans in recent elections in Arkansas, he said.

The House is now composed of 75 Republicans, 24 Democrats, with a vacant seat formerly held by Rep. David Branscum, R-Marshall.

In the November general election, Democrats will vie with Republicans for 41 state House seats, including for Richmond's District 21 seat that Democrat Stele Wayne James of Gravelley in Yell County is seeking. The district includes parts of Garland, Montgomery, Perry, Polk, Scott, Sebastian and Yell counties.

Richmond has served in the state House since 2015. He was elected in 2014 without opposition to succeed now-state Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, and then was re-elected in 2016 without any opposition.

His bid for the 4th Congressional District seat ended in February 2012, when he also announced his support for Tom Cotton of Dardanelle. Richmond, who quit the race before officially filing, had said he would be unable to catch up with Cotton's out-of-state fundraising. Cotton went on to win the seat and now serves in the U.S. Senate.

On March 12, the state House Republican caucus elected Richmond over two freshmen, Reps. Carlton Wing of North Little Rock and Jeff Williams of Springdale. Richmond succeeds Rep. Mat Pitsch of Fort Smith, who is running for the Senate.

"Sometimes having a little bit of experience goes a long way," Whitaker said of Richmond, who immediately assumed the leadership role.

House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, noted Richmond served as an assistant pro tempore from 2015-17 and has served as vice chairman of the House Public Transportation Committee since 2017.

"He's not one to come down with a big agenda," Gillam said of Richmond, who has introduced seven bills and got four of them enacted since 2015. "He felt a call to serve."

Richmond said he included Wing and Williams as part of his leadership team. Wing is focused on public relations and Williams is the elections coordinator.

House Republicans also elected second-term Rep. Brandt Smith of Jonesboro as whip over first-term Rep. Frances Cavenaugh of Walnut Ridge, and second-term Rep. Mary Bentley of Perryville over second-term Rep. Karilyn Brown of Sherwood as secretary. Smith succeeds Rep. John Payton of Wilbur and Bentley succeeds Rep. Robin Lundstrum of Springdale.

Richmond said his goals as leader include supporting Gov. Asa Hutchinson's initiative to reduce the number of state agencies reporting to the governor and making the state more competitive "through regulation and tax reform."

He said other goals include finding a solution to infrastructure funding, strengthening public schools while providing parents with educational options, and supporting continued efforts by the governor to seek waivers to reduce the costs of Arkansas' Medicaid expansion program, which uses Medicaid dollars to buy health insurance for low-income people.

In a written statement, the governor said the state would continue to ask the federal government for a waiver that would lower the income eligibility for the program from 138 percent of the federal poverty level to 100 percent. That change is projected to reduce the number of people enrolled in the program by 60,000; it now serves about 285,000 Arkansans.

The governor said the state "should also continue to look at innovation in other states and other waivers that might work in Arkansas."

During this year's fiscal session, Richmond voted "present" on the appropriation granting spending authority for the Medical Services Division, including for Arkansas' version of Medicaid expansion, in fiscal 2019, which starts July 1. Bentley and Smith voted against it. The appropriation cleared the House in a 79-15 vote.

In contrast, Williams, Wing, Cavenaugh and Brown voted for that appropriation.

"I don't think there is anything to read into it one way or the other," said House Speaker-designate Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, about the election of three caucus leaders who didn't vote for the Medical Services appropriation. Of the previous leaders, Pitsch voted for the appropriation, while Lundstrum and Payton voted against it.

Seventy-five votes are required to approve the appropriation in the House under state law. Gaining the three-fourths vote required in the House and Senate has been difficult virtually every year since the Republican-controlled Legislature and then-Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, authorized the program.

The state's share of the cost of the program is 6 percent this year, 7 percent next year and 10 percent starting in 2020 under existing federal law. The state's cost is projected to be $135 million and the federal government's share is forecast to be $1.95 billion in fiscal 2019.

Richmond said his vote against the appropriation was based on his representation of his constituents in House District 21.

"The Medicaid expansion is the policy of Arkansas and I accept that," he said. "I may not vote for it, but I am going to work to make it better."

Richmond said he could vote for the appropriation in the future "if we can get [the federal government to give] block grants down to the state." He also said the appropriation could have his support if other changes are made to the Medicaid expansion under Hutchinson's leadership.

President Donald Trump's administration earlier this month approved Arkansas' plan to impose a work requirement on certain people in the Medicaid expansion program.

Earlier this month, Smith told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette he expected to vote for the Medical Services appropriation after the federal government approved the work-requirement waiver.

And last week, Smith said he felt like he could have voted for the appropriation if the federal government had approved the state's request for a waiver to reduce the income threshold for eligibility from 138 percent of the poverty level to 100 percent.

But Smith said he voted against the appropriation this year because he has to be consistent in the promises he made when he was elected.

Bentley could not be reached for comment by telephone or email by this newspaper last week.

NW News on 03/26/2018

Print Headline: House GOP caucus chooses new leader

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