LITTLE ROCK — When lawmakers return to the state Capitol on Wednesday for the official close of the fiscal session, one piece of business the House will take up is choosing a speaker-designate for the 2015 session.
The announced candidates for the position are Reps. Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, Kim Hammer, R-Benton, Fred Love, D-Little Rock, and Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado. Each is currently in his second House term.
The 90th General Assembly will not be bound by Wednesday’s vote. The House traditionally has honored the will of the previous membership, although the most recent race was an exception.
Rep. Darrin Williams, D-Little Rock, defeated Rep. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, to be speaker-designate at the end of the 2012 fiscal session, but in 2013 the House ended up seating Rep. Davy Carter, R-Cabot, as speaker after after control of the House switched from Democratic to Republican hands and a number of Democrats threw their support to Carter.
The current makeup of the House is 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one Green Party member.
Gillam, 37, is chairman of the House Management Committee, a farmer and the former owner of a railroad construction company.
In an interview Friday, Gillam said he has experience dealing with high-pressure situations, working with large numbers of people, managing money, negotiating with large corporations and making long-range decisions.
He said it was too soon to announce any specific policy proposals, but if elected he would work to advance the state in the key areas of job growth and education. He said he has proven "that I am someone that works across the aisle in a problem-solving fashion with Democrats and Republicans."
Gillam supported the so-called private option, the state’s program that uses federal Medicaid money to subsidize private insurance for low-income Arkansans, when it was approved last year and when the Legislature voted this year to renew federal funding for it.
"We’ll evaluate and look at it moving forward, but right now we’ve not seen any reason to think that the program isn’t working and that we shouldn’t continue that," he said.
Hammer, 55, is co-chairman of the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee and a hospice chaplain at Saline Memorial Hospital.
Hammer said his qualities include fairness, being a good listener and a commitment to not manipulating the system but instead allowing "everybody to bring their ideas to the table."
He said his goals as speaker would include improving the state’s Insurance Service Office, or ISO, rating, which he said would save the state’s taxpayers millions in fire insurance premiums; considering whether more of the state’s budget surpluses should be set aside for future needs, such as the state’s eventual 10 percent share of the cost of the private option; and developing an exit strategy in case the private option someday ends.
Hammer voted against the private option last year and initially voted against appropriating federal funds for it this year, though ultimately he changed his position and voted for it. He pledged that as speaker he would listen to the will of the body on the program.
"As speaker of the House, my objective would be to make sure that the process and the method of giving each side the platform to voice their opinion would be protected, and then let the majority win," he said.
Shepherd, 38, is chairman of the House Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development Committee and a lawyer.
Shepherd said he has demonstrated an ability to lead in an efficient and fair manner and get things done in a bipartisan way, citing as examples his successful sponsorship of legislation to create an annual back-to-school sales tax holiday and his work in the agriculture committee on a package of incentives for the $1.1 billion Big River Steel project in Mississippi County.
"My goal if I am to be elected speaker is to do the people’s business in an efficient manner and to do what’s best for the state of Arkansas and assist the members of the House in being effective," he said.
Shepherd supported the private option last year and this year.
"I think it’s something that we will continue to have to look at to make sure that it is meeting the requirements that we’ve placed on that program, that it is meeting expectations that the General Assembly has for that program," he said. "If there are improvements that can be made, then that’s something that obviously we would have to consider, but clearly we have to continue to look to see: Is it doing what it was supposed to do?"
Love, 39, is chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus and a grants administrator for Pulaski County.
Love said said he expects his party to win back a majority in the House in November and is working to make that happen, but he said that as speaker he would be fair, open to listening to what people have to say on both sides of the aisle and willing to work across party lines to get things done.
He said one of his major goals as speaker would be to encourage entrepreneurs and small businesses, "because if they start in Arkansas, they’re more than likely to remain in Arkansas."
Love, who holds a master’s degree in public administration and is working toward a doctorate in public health, supports the private option.
He said that as speaker his goal on for the program would be "making sure that it’s actually working the way it should work, making sure that people have access, making sure that the overall system is working well — and if not, then providing the leadership to say ‘Hey, let’s look at this and let’s see how we can fix it.’"
The Senate chose Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, as its choice for the next Senate president pro tem last year. Dismang was the only candidate for the position.