Younger lawmakers form Arkansas Future Caucus aim to bridge political gap

December 4, 2022

The number of state lawmakers 45 or younger will jump from 30 to 40 when the next Arkansas General Assembly convenes in January, creating one of the largest delegations of relatively young lawmakers in the nation, according to a national group encouraging younger candidates to run.

Group of young lawmakers prioritizes finding consensus where possible

by Doug Thompson | December 4, 2022 at 1:00 a.m

The number of state lawmakers 45 or younger will jump from 30 to 40 when the next Arkansas General Assembly convenes in January, creating one of the largest delegations of relatively young lawmakers in the nation, according to a national group encouraging younger candidates to run.

Arkansas has 135 state lawmakers total, with 35 in the Senate and 100 in the House.

The four co-chairmen of this group of younger Arkansas lawmakers met with community leaders Wednesday in Bentonville to explain why and how they hope their group will make a difference.

The group goes by the name of the Arkansas Future Caucus and is an affiliate of the Millennial Action Project, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C. The project’s national director, Layla Zaidane, attended Wednesday’s meeting at The Momentary. She said before Wednesday’s event Arkansas’ proportion of lawmakers younger than 45 appears to be the largest in the United States.

“I was the first woman to give birth while in the Arkansas Legislature,” Sen. Breanne Davis, R- Russellville, said at Wednesday’s meeting. She was also “the only one at the time who had a kid in day care” after she won in a special election in 2018.

The Legislature makes laws about child care, but she was one of few who still had any children in child care, she said.

The Arkansas Future Caucus began in 2017 in the House, said Rep. Aaron Pilkington, R-Clarksville. Pilkington is the Republican co-chairman of the caucus along with Rep. Jamie Scott, D-North Little Rock. Senate co-chairmen are Davis and Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock. The Action Project organizes caucuses that way to cross partisan lines in each chamber of the Legislature to let younger legislators find issues they can agree on.

The bipartisan approach works, Scott said Wednesday.

“When you know people, you fight differently,” she said.

There’s more mutual respect and more willingness to listen to points you had not considered, she said.

Lawmakers need perspective from outside their districts, Scott said.

“I represent North Little Rock, but every vote I take affects 3 million Arkansans,” she said.

Democrats have to work with the large Republican majority to pass a bill, Tucker said. The same logic applies to younger lawmakers working with an older majority, he said in an interview after Wednesday’s meeting. “We need their perspective,” Tucker said of older lawmakers. Also, term limits clearly gave younger lawmakers their chance to have more influence, Tucker said.

Grant Tennille, chairman of the state’s Democratic Party, agreed with Tucker about the practical necessity of working with Republicans to pass legislation and to make important changes to legislation that will pass. The Future Caucus is another in what Tennille said is an increasing trend in legislative politics. Tennille served as director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission during then-Gov. Mike Beebe’s administration.

“I see it in the rural caucus and in the public education caucus, which is forming,” Tennille said.

Lawmakers are forming around common interests and crossing party lines to do it.

One audience member at Wednesday’s meeting asked the caucus members if they faced any repercussions from their constituents or other legislators for their bipartisan approach. Not so far, caucus co-chairmen said.

There will always be major issues dividing lawmakers, but those issues account for about 10% of the bills the Legislature acts upon, Pilkington said at Wednesday’s meeting. There is plenty of room to form consensus over the remaining 90%, he said.

Pilkington chuckled during recording of a podcast Thursday about Scott, a Democrat and Pulaski County Youth Service’s executive director, getting an award from a very conservative national group after the caucus-supported Act 422 of 2021 was signed into law.

Act 422 prohibits corrections officials from putting pregnant women in solitary confinement for more than 30 days, unless the woman has attacked another prisoner or guard or is at “substantial risk” to do so. The restriction would also apply to female inmates who gave birth within the past month, who are breastfeeding or who are under a physician’s care for postpartum depression. It makes exceptions for inmates who are a danger to themselves or their newborns.

Conservatives and liberals joined in supporting House Bill 1470 of 2021, Pilkington and Scott said at the meeting Wednesday. Crafting the bill by taking multiple viewpoints into consideration mattered, Scott and Pilkington said. The bill passed the House 95-0 and the Senate 33-0, records show.

The caucus also crafted and helped pass Act 408 of 2021, co-chairmen said. The act allows pharmacists to dispense birth-control pills without a prescription. Restrictions apply. No more than six months’ worth of pills are available before requiring the woman to visit a doctor. Only women older than 18 are able to get the medication directly from a pharmacist.

Seeing him sponsor that bill, which started as House Bill 1069, raised a lot of eyebrows, Pilkington said. Pilkington has a solid anti-abortion voting record, legislative records show. His introduction of the bill and support from other anti-abortion lawmakers like Davis, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, helped it pass, they said.

Davis and Pilkington told lawmakers the bill was consistent with the Legislature’s overall conservative stance on abortion during debate on the bill, news accounts show. “We are the No. 1 most pro-life state based on policy that was passed, but we have the highest birth rates among teenagers,” Davis told her colleagues during Senate debate on the bill. Preventing unwanted pregnancy would also reduce abortions performed, she said.

The caucus’ priorities for the coming legislative session are still being worked out, Pilkington said. Criminal justice reform will be among those priorities, he said. Another will be legislation supporting new, startup businesses. Proposals include giving a state income tax break to new businesses for their first three years.

Rep.-elect Brit McKenzie, R-Rogers, said Thursday he joined the group and was glad for the perspective. McKenzie will begin his first term by representing House District 7 in eastern Benton County.

“I got into public service to serve my community and to solve our state’s entrenched problems with a fresh perspective,” McKenzie said in a statement. “Our millennial generation is going to be inheriting the issues we debate today, and it is incumbent upon us to play a larger role in shaping the political debate for the future. I am pleased to be a part of the Arkansas Future Caucus and look forward to working not towards common ground, but rather common solutions in the General Assembly.”

Read the article on the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette —>

Rep. Sara Jacobs


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