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LEARNS, taxes, transparency split GOP candidates in some Arkansas legislative primaries

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LEARNS, taxes, transparency split GOP candidates in some Arkansas legislative primaries

Feb 27, 2024 | 7:00 am ET
By Tess Vrbin
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LEARNS, taxes, transparency split GOP candidates in some Arkansas legislative primaries
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The Arkansas State Capitol. (Dwain Hebda/Arkansas Advocate)

Tax cuts, school vouchers and the state Freedom of Information Act are all hot-button issues for several Arkansas Republicans vying for seats in the state Legislature, including several incumbents who are fighting to appear on the November ballot.

LEARNS, taxes, transparency split GOP candidates in some Arkansas legislative primaries
Timmy Reid, candidate for Arkansas House District 27 (Courtesy of Reid campaign Facebook page)

A few of the challengers in the upcoming primary have run for legislative offices before, have already served in the Legislature or have family ties to former lawmakers.

“This is the people’s job,” said Timmy Reid, a cattle farmer and contractor from Marshall who is running for the House for the fourth time since 2018. “…It doesn’t matter what I want — if the people of my district decide they don’t want [something], I’m not voting for it or supporting it.”

Reid is seeking the North Central Arkansas District 27 House seat held by first-term Rep. Steven Walker, R-Horseshoe Bend. The race is a rematch of the district’s 2022 Republican primary runoff, which Walker won by 324 votes. The district includes Newton, Searcy and Izard counties and portions of Baxter and Stone counties.

LEARNS, taxes, transparency split GOP candidates in some Arkansas legislative primaries
Rep. Steven Walker, R-Horseshoe Bend

In House District 32 in Craighead County, five-time incumbent Rep. Jack Ladyman of Jonesboro faces former Rep. Brandt Smith, who served four House terms before unsuccessfully challenging U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford in the 2022 Republican primary. Smith said at the time that he saw no path to reelection in the Legislature after the state House districts were redrawn.

Additionally, Rep. Cindy Crawford of Fort Smith is seeking a fourth term and faces a challenge in District 51 from software programmer and computer scientist Jeff Burks, also of Fort Smith. The district, situated entirely in Sebastian County, includes a section of Fort Smith and the surrounding areas in Barling and Fort Chaffee.

Meanwhile in the other chamber, Sen. David Wallace of Leachville faces Tommy Wayne Wagner Jr., a physician from Manila, in Senate District 19, which includes all of Mississippi County and parts of Craighead and Poinsett counties. Both of Wagner’s parents, the late Charolette and Tommy Wayne Wagner Sr., served in the Legislature.

Wagner’s brother, Wes Wagner, served one term in the House as a Democrat and lost his reelection bid to Wallace in 2014. After Wallace’s sole House term, he has been elected to the Senate three times.

Wallace, Wagner, Crawford, Ladyman, Reid and Walker all answered questions from the Advocate about the issues that matter to them during their primary campaigns.

Burks did not respond to three emails, three phone calls and three text messages from the Advocate. Smith did not answer five phone calls from the Advocate, and he did not include an email address in his candidate information form filed with the Secretary of State.

A few other Republican incumbents face primary opponents:

  • Sen. Steve Crowell of Magnolia, a freshman who represents part of Southwest Arkansas in District 3, faces Mark Silvey of Rosston.
  • Rep. Fran Cavenaugh faces Coty Powers in District 30, which includes parts of Lawrence, Craighead and Greene counties; both are from Walnut Ridge.
  • Rep. Rick McClure faces Michael Shnaekel in District 29; both are from Malvern. The district includes parts of Hot Spring and Saline counties.
  • Rep. Danny Watson of Hope faces Arnetta Bradford of Hope and Robert Bradford of Nashville in District 88, which includes all of Hempstead and portions of Miller and Howard counties.

Early voting began Feb. 20, and primary election day is March 5.

The LEARNS Act

LEARNS, taxes, transparency split GOP candidates in some Arkansas legislative primaries
Sen. David Wallace, R-Leachville

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ signature education law, Arkansas LEARNS, changed multiple aspects of the state’s education system, including teacher pay, per-student funding and the creation of a school voucher program, among other things.

Crawford and Wallace were among the 55 representatives and 25 senators to sponsor the LEARNS Act. Walker and Ladyman both voted for it.

Wallace, the Senate District 19 incumbent, said he is “very happy” with the wide-ranging law.

“We need to always remember that the LEARNS Act is about our kids,” he said. “People have made other issues more important concerning the LEARNS Act, but it’s done to improve the education of our children.”

Wallace’s challenger Wagner said the law was rushed through the Legislature too quickly.

LEARNS, taxes, transparency split GOP candidates in some Arkansas legislative primaries
Dr. Tommy Wayne Wagner Jr., candidate for Arkansas Senate District 19 (Courtesy of Wagner’s campaign website)

“We have to get back to the roots of education where teachers can teach, and where parents are empowered and engaged in their children’s education,” Wagner said. “We have to gather input district by district as to their specific needs. I want to take a fresh look at all of this as a legislator. I want to collaborate with each and every school district to define real and impactful reform that will preserve our conservative values.”

Crawford said she plans to discuss any potential changes to the law with teachers in District 51 while campaigning for the primary.

Challenger Burks supports “school choice, investing in vocational training programs, and ensuring our students have access to a world-class education,” according to his website.

Reid, who’s opposing Walker in District 27, said the voucher program is one of his biggest problems with the LEARNS Act.

“I don’t think we should be sending any money to private schools in any way, shape or form,” he said.

Arkansas schools compress salary schedules in response to LEARNS Act

The LEARNS Act also raised teachers’ starting salary to $50,000 per year. Reid said teachers’ salaries are “the main topic” regarding LEARNS in North Central Arkansas, and he believes “veteran teachers were kind of slapped in the face” regarding new salary standards.

“Setting up a good pay scale to start out [until] you get up to this point would have been a better route, because the pay scale for teachers for years has been horrible,” Reid said.

Walker, Ladyman and Wallace all said the Legislature should look at giving longtime teachers higher salaries. Walker added that he would support tweaking LEARNS “if it would genuinely improve it,” and Ladyman said the state should also “look at the requirements placed on private schools” but did not elaborate.

LEARNS, taxes, transparency split GOP candidates in some Arkansas legislative primaries
Rep. Jack Ladyman, R-Jonesboro

Ladyman’s challenger Smith told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that he supports the LEARNS Act and wants the public to give the Department of Education “the benefit of the doubt” while implementing the law.

Tax cuts and the state budget

Arkansas continued cutting state income taxes during the 2023 legislative session. Walker, Ladyman and Crawford were among 71 Republican lawmakers to sponsor a law reducing business income taxes in the 2023 regular session, and Crawford and Ladyman co-sponsored additional income tax cuts during a special legislative session in September.

All three said they support further tax cuts. Walker said he would be willing to co-sponsor the legislation again in future sessions, and Crawford said the state should lower sales taxes on food and medicine as well as cutting corporate and income taxes.

LEARNS, taxes, transparency split GOP candidates in some Arkansas legislative primaries
Former State Rep. Brandt Smith, R-Jonesboro (Courtesy of Smith’s campaign website)

Reid, Walker’s challenger, supports lower taxes particularly for low-income Arkansans, and he said he is not sure last year’s cuts help those people financially.

“I don’t know how much that would be on their checks, but $20, $30 or $40 makes a difference,” he said.

Smith told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in July that he supports tax cuts while also acknowledging the state’s need for tax revenue in order to provide services.

Wagner made a similar comment to the Advocate, saying he would favor “any tax legislation that would lower the tax burden on our citizens [and] would not jeopardize any of our critical programs in the state.”

Wallace, the incumbent facing Wagner, said Arkansas must continue lowering taxes “to be competitive with the states around us” and draw more jobs to the state. He also said he believes the state budget could be frozen or reduced overall at no harm to the public.

The Arkansas special session tax cuts explained

“I think there are probably areas where we could trim fat that would not interfere with the ability to govern,” he said. “…“A bureaucracy if left unchecked will just naturally grow, and as every state government does, we have that problem.”

Similarly, Crawford’s challenger Burks’ website says he would “advocate for process improvements in our government to lower their costs and waste, allowing us to keep reducing our taxes.”

Additionally, Wallace, Wagner and Reid said they would support directing state funds to improving roads in rural Arkansas, while Walker said he wants state funding to bring more resources to rural communities as a means of attracting out-of-state companies and business growth.

Ladyman and Crawford both said they support funding the residential mental health treatment facilities under the state Department of Human Services.

Burks’ website states that he favors “increased investment in digital infrastructure to bridge the digital divide and ensure access to technology and the internet for all of Arkansas.”

Smith has not mentioned his budgetary priorities on his campaign website or his social media posts from the past several months.

Public information

The availability of government meetings and records became an issue in the 2024 election cycle in September when Sanders supported several exemptions to the state FOIA. After bipartisan pushback during the special legislative session, she signed only one exemption into law.

The nonpartisan Arkansas Citizens for Transparency (ACT) formed in response to the session. After several attempts, the group received Attorney General Tim Griffin’s approval in January for two proposed ballot measures: a constitutional amendment creating the right to government transparency and an act that would alter the FOIA.

Worries over secrecy grow as state officials shield records from the public

Wagner and Reid both said the public has the right to know what the government does with taxpayer money.

“With technology, transactions with government funds should be public record [in] nearly real-time,” Wagner said. “I’m unsure why anyone in government has a problem with that transparency.”

Wallace and Walker, who are facing Wagner and Reid, respectively, both said Arkansas already has one of the nation’s strongest FOIA laws. Walker said he had not yet read ACT’s two proposed ballot measures as of Feb. 13 when he spoke to the Advocate.

The Arkansas Constitution “is riddled with amendments” and doesn’t need more, Wallace said, adding that any changes to government transparency policy should be done in the form of an act.

Enshrining government transparency into the state Constitution would be to the detriment of the FOIA, Ladyman said.

“I believe the FOIA law is a living document that needs to be reviewed and possibly changed on a regular basis in support of government entities being transparent and the ability to effectively respond to FOIA requests,” he said. “If the current FOIA law is enshrined in our constitution, that will not be possible.”

LEARNS, taxes, transparency split GOP candidates in some Arkansas legislative primaries
Jeff Burks, candidate for Arkansas House District 51 (Courtesy of Burks’ campaign website)

Smith’s and Burks’ campaign websites do not mention government transparency or the FOIA.

Crawford, Burks’ incumbent opponent, said she supported the FOIA as it stood before last year’s special session, and she expressed concern about a specific provision of ACT’s proposed changes to the law.

“I am not a fan of defining a [public] meeting as two people,” she said. “That will cause unintended consequences.”

Maternal health care

LEARNS, taxes, transparency split GOP candidates in some Arkansas legislative primaries
Rep. Cindy Crawford, R-Fort Smith

Arkansas has the nation’s highest maternal mortality rate and the third highest infant mortality rate, according to the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement.

Additionally, Arkansas is one of three states that have not taken advantage of the federal option to extend postpartum Medicaid coverage from 60 days to 12 months after birth. A 2023 bill would have extended this coverage but did not advance in the Legislature due to cost concerns.

Sanders said last week that she “wouldn’t say that that additional level of legislation is needed” since the state has other insurance coverage options for postpartum low-income Arkansans.

However, Ladyman said he believes this Medicaid coverage expansion would be good for Arkansas, and he favors directing state funds to initiatives that would reduce maternal and infant mortality.

Neither Smith nor Burks has mentioned this issue on their campaign websites, in social media posts or in other news outlets.

Crawford said she also wants to focus on “women’s health and maternal health disparities” if reelected.

“We must focus on women’s health before they become pregnant,” she said. “We should be creating educational classes in schools for young women on the importance of prenatal care and creating an atmosphere of healthy living through nutrition and physical activity in K-12 and college.”

In House District 27, Reid said the state should advocate for postpartum health care improvements, and Walker said the state needs “more funding and more awareness of this issue.”

Arkansas maternal health care landscape needs more coordination and teamwork, physicians say

Wallace is a member of the Senate Public Health Committee, and he said he would support any bill that would bolster maternal health care, “especially with our single moms and our families that can’t afford good child health care, before birth and after birth.”

Wagner said he has seen “the challenges facing people from every side of the healthcare and the insurance industry” in his decades of experience as a physician in rural Northeast Arkansas.

“I want to bring common-sense solutions to Little Rock that put patients and their benefits first; ahead of the interests of big Pharma, big government or big insurance,” he said.

Other priorities

While an array of policy issues matter to the Republican candidates across the board, they each have individual goals for the 2025 legislative session if they are elected this year.

Fostering community development, from homes to hospitals, is among Wagner’s highest legislative priorities, he said.

“We need to look at tax credits, dollar for dollar for donations to your home church,” Wagner said. “We need to formulate a plan to help cities provide the infrastructure and low-cost funds to build residential properties in our small communities. We need to match up our tax deductions at the state level to match those at the federal level, especially when it comes to real estate and agriculture.”

The incumbent Wallace, who has received an endorsement from Sanders, said he has “returned, without exception, every phone call and every text message” from his constituents and will continue to do so if reelected.

“Folks talk about what a state senator does, and we talk about writing bills and passing laws, and that’s a big part of it, but a part just as important [is that] your state senators and representatives can be a conduit between your district, your constituents, and the bureaucracy of state government,” he said. “…It’s hard for a person who’s working every day for his family to know who to talk to in state government. That’s a big part of what your legislators do, and I’m very good at that.”

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Meanwhile, Ladyman said he plans to sponsor legislation “that provides a reliable and available electric grid in Arkansas.”

Crawford said she hopes to introduce legislation that would allow 100% disabled veterans to be tax-exempt, and Walker said he wants to find ways to make it easier for people with associate’s degrees to transfer into a four-year college or university.

Reid’s motivation to run for Walker’s seat came partly from last year’s controversy over a proposal to turn some federal lands near the Buffalo National River into a national park preserve. The group behind the idea retracted it after public backlash.

“I’m probably the only one who’s running for this office who’s going to be able to stand up for these people in the watershed because I live in this watershed,” Reid said. “This is my home and I was born and raised here.”

He also said the 2023 legislative session gave him the support of some members of his community before he even decided to seek office again.

“​​I got phone call after phone call during and after the session [saying] that I needed to run again, that people didn’t like the votes in Little Rock,” Reid said.