LITTLE ROCK – Former state Rep. B.G. Hendrix enjoys talking about his more than 30 years in the Arkansas House and has a thought or comment on just about every topic or issue – except the new way the House picks its speaker.
“I thought the way we did it when I was elected speaker was good, but right now I’m not sure,” the 83-year-old Fort Smith Democrat said last week as current House members prepared to elect their future leader in an off-year for the first time.
Hendrix was first elected to the House in 1962 and served as speaker in 1989-1990.
“I served in the House more than 20 years before I was selected. Everybody knew me,” he said. “Term limits have changed all that.”
Arkansas voters in 1992 approved Amendment, limiting state senators to two four-year terms and House members to three two-year terms.
For years, the 100-member House elected its speaker-designate in the middle of the regular session. Three years ago, in an effort to give freshmen lawmakers more time to get to know the speaker candidates and to keep that campaign separate from the regular duties of the session, members decided to delay the selection until the second Monday in January following the legislative session.
On Monday, representatives will gather in the House chamber to make their selection for House speaker of the 2007 session.
After nearly a year of campaigning, Reps. Will Bond, D-Jacksonville, and Benny Petrus, D-Stuttgart, will address House members and the secret ballot vote will be taken.
Both candidates said last week that they are glad the long campaign is over and each expressed confidence he would win.
“I feel like we have the votes to win,” Bond said.
“I feel real good about it,” said Petrus.
The two lawmakers said they expect the vote to be close and pledged to support the winner.
Bond and Petrus each said he would continue a strong leadership standard set by Speaker Bill Stovall, D-Quitman. They also spoke of the need to protect the integrity of the House.
“It’s important that there be an extremely hardworking and deliberate chamber,” Bond said. “In the era of term limits, we need to maintain the integrity and power of the House.”
Bond and Petrus both downplayed talk by some that the speaker’s race is more of a referendum on urban vs. rural, with Bond, an attorney, being the urban lawmaker, and Petrus representing more rural interests.
“I have heard that and I just don’t see myself as an urban lawmaker,” Bond said, adding that each House member has about 27,000 constituents and their job is to represent their interests.
Petrus said he expects some lawmakers who represent more rural areas to vote for Bond, and some who live in larger cities to support him for speaker.
“I just don’t think you are going to see it break down on exactly those types of lines,” he said.
Petrus owns a car dealership and farmland in Stuttgart and Dewitt.
The two speaker candidates said they have campaigned hard but made no promises to get votes. Petrus did say that he has told one lawmaker that he would select him speaker-pro tem if he is elected. He declined to say to whom he had offered the position.
Campaign contribution reports indicate both Bond and Petrus gave money to fellow House members during the 2004 election season.
Petrus, who did not have an opponent in 2004 when he ran for re-election but raised about $70,000, donated some of that money to the campaigns of 15 House candidates, according to campaign reports. Thirteen of those candidates were elected.
Bond, according to the contribution reports, donated his own money to 11 House candidates. Ten of them were elected.
Balancing the state budget will be key for the next speaker, said Bond, noting that rising Medicaid costs and increases in other areas of the budget will have to be addressed.
The on-going Lake View school funding case also will be looming over the Legislature during the 2007 session, if a special session is called later this year to address concerns on education spending raised by the Supreme Court in an order last month, he said.
Bond served as chairman of the City, County and Local Affairs Committee during the 2005 session. He was House sponsor of a package of bills intended to help control the state’s growing prison population.
Each of the bills in the package was signed into law by Gov. Mike Huckabee, and were supported by state prison officials and the state prosecutors’ association.
Petrus, during the session, filed several agriculture-related bills and was an advocate for farmers. One measure, House Bill 2657, created a tax refund for companies that create
fuel in Arkansas. That measure was later signed into law as Act 2223 by the governor.
“What’s most important is that we come back after this election (for House speaker) as a united body,” Petrus said.