Video: Darrin Williams elected First Black Speaker In Arkansas House of Representatives

Posted on 09 March 2012

By John Lyon
Arkansas News Bureau

LITTLE ROCK — The Legislature formally ended its 2012 fiscal session today, and the House later elected Rep. Darrin Williams, D-Little Rock, as speaker-designate for the 89th General Assembly, which will convene in January.

Historians believe Williams would be the state’s first black House speaker.

House Republicans also met today and named Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, their next caucus leader.

Current Speaker Robert S. Moore Jr., D-Arkansas City, gaveled the House to a close at straight-up noon. The Senate adjourned just moments later.

Thus ended the Legislature’s second fiscal session, which began Feb. 13. During the session lawmakers approved a $4.7 billion state budget for the 2012-13 budget year, which begins July 1.

Voters approved annual sessions, with sessions in even-numbered years to be devoted to fiscal issues, in 2008.

The 2012 session also will be noted for what lawmakers did not do legislatively: They did not repeal a special tax break for the trucking industry that will be a $4 million-a-year drain on the state Highway and Transportation Department after it goes into effect July 1, and they did not toughen parole eligibility requirements for sex offenders.

The Legislature approved the tax break in 2011 to win the Arkansas Trucking Association’s support for a proposed diesel tax increase to fund a highway bond program, but the association later withdrew its support. A measure to toughen parole eligibility for sex offenders was drafted after a sex offender in Saline County was paroled after serving a year and a half.

Both proposals appeared to have wide support going into the session but neither, for varying reasons, could muster the two-thirds majorities in both chambers needed to introduce non-appropriation bills during a fiscal session.

Williams faced Rep. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, in the race to be the next House speaker. Rice was seeking to become the state’s first Republican House speaker since Reconstruction.

Williams won by a vote of 54-46. The vote was by secret ballot, but the numbers coincided with the numbers of Democrats, 54, and Republicans, 46, in the House.

“I am so humbled and honored that my colleagues in the General Assembly have asked me to be their speaker,” Williams told reporters after the vote.

In a speech on the House floor before the vote, Williams said his goals would include creating jobs, strengthening education and address a looming Medicaid crisis. He said he would seek to foster an environment where the House would function “like a patchwork quilt, not just red blankets and blue blankets.”

Williams quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as saying, “Whatever affects one directly affects us all indirectly.”

Rice said that as speaker he, too, would work across party lines. He also said he would work to cut taxes, reduce regulations and make government more efficient.

If Republicans win a majority in the House in November, they could block Williams from being installed and instead seat a Republican speaker. Williams told reporters he believes lawmakers would be making a mistake to “change horses in midstream,” saying he will start planning for the next session right away.

“It costs us about $30,000 a day to be here. If we wait to start planning after November, then that’s just more money we’re going to cost the state and that’s more days we’re going to be here,” he said.

Rice has said there will be “two people maybe getting ready” to lead the House.

Current House Minority Leader John Burris of Harrison predicted today that if Republicans win a majority, they will seat Rice, not Williams, as speaker. In doing so they would be following the wishes of voters, he said.

“If (voters) make the Republicans the majority party, they’ve made their wishes known,” he said.

The Senate voted last year to make Larry Teague, D-Nashville, its president pro tem for the 89th General Assembly.

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