Senate confirms Sanders' appointees; session closes

Lieutenant Governor Leslie Rutledge bangs the gavel marking the end of regular session for the Arkansas Senate at the State Capitol on Monday, May 1. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)
Lieutenant Governor Leslie Rutledge bangs the gavel marking the end of regular session for the Arkansas Senate at the State Capitol on Monday, May 1. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

The Arkansas Senate on Monday voted to confirm 10 of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' appointees to state boards and commissions before adjourning for the regular session.

The Republican governor's appointees, who were confirmed by the Senate, included attorney Kevin Crass to the board of trustees for the University of Arkansas and former Department of Corrections Secretary Solomon Graves to the Arkansas State Claims Commission.

The Senate on Monday also confirmed the appointment of Shash Goyal to the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, Susan Peacock to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, Danny Ormand to the state Crime Laboratory Board, Don Curdie to the Arkansas State Board of Accountancy, Rusty Lanier to the state Banking Board, and Michael Birrer, Matthew Sellers and Wesley Kluck to the Arkansas State Medical Board.

Some senators said they didn't know about the governor's appointment of Graves to the Arkansas State Claims Commission.

A fterward, Sa n d e rs spokeswoman Alexa Henning said in a written statement that "The Governor appointed Solomon Graves after the Senate chose not to confirm former Governor [Asa] Hutchinson's appointment, Dexter Booth."

"The Governor values Mr. Graves' experience in state government where he has served for almost 20 years and will bring his wealth of knowledge to the Claims Commission, particularly in the judicial and law enforcement space," Henning said.

Sanders appointed Graves to the Arkansas State Claims Commission in a letter to Graves dated Feb. 28 to a term expiring Jan. 14, 2027. The salary for the claims commission post is $31,616 a year, according to the Arkansas Transparency website. The other claims commissioners include Henry C. Kinslow, Paul Morris, Courtney C. Baird and Sylvester Smith.

Graves said Monday in a text message to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that he's honored to have received Senate confirmation to serve on the State Claims Commission.

"Thank you to Governor Sanders for the opportunity to serve on this important Commission," Graves wrote. "Claims Commissioners provide an essential public service through the hearing and adjudication of claims against the state of Arkansas, its agencies, and its institutions."

Graves also serves as director of public policy for the Bentonville-based nonprofit group Heartland Forward.

On Jan. 30, the Arkansas Senate Rules Committee rejected former Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson's reappointment of Dexter Booth of Little Rock to the State Claims Commission. The Senate later declined to suspend its rules to clear the way for a vote on whether to confirm the reappointment of Booth to the State Claims Commission.

On Jan. 3, Sanders announced she would nominate Joe Profiri, a former top official at the Arizona Department of Corrections, as secretary of the Arkansas Department of Corrections to replace Graves, who had served as the department's secretary since July of 2020. Sanders cited Profiri's experience in correctional oversight as the reason for the appointment. The Arkansas Board of Corrections subsequently voted to confirm Profiri as the corrections department's secretary.

The Arkansas House of Representatives didn't return to the state Capitol on Monday to reconvene.

House spokeswoman Cecillea Pond-Mayo said Monday, "The 2023 Regular Session is now adjourned Sine Die." "As no further business was brought to the Speaker's attention, the House did not convene," she said, referring to House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado. "The adjournment took effect automatically at noon on Monday pursuant to [House Concurrent Resolution] 1007."

Monday was the 113th day of the 94th General Assembly's regular session.

This year's regular session was dominated by Sanders' sweeping education overhaul law dubbed the LEARNS Act and a public safety overhaul law called the Protect Arkansas Act as well as a number of social issue-related laws.

LEARNS stands for literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking and safety.

The 145-page LEARNS Act aims to increase the starting annual teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000 and give teachers making above the minimum a $2,000 raise. Among other things, the law also creates a voucher program, known as Education Freedom Accounts, for students to attend a private or parochial school or home school. The vouchers will be worth 90% of the per-pupil funding schools receive from the state.

The Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students ballot committee resubmitted its proposed referendum to repeal the LEARNS Act to the Arkansas attorney general's office Thursday. Steve Grappe is the committee's chairman, and president of the Democratic Party of Arkansas' Rural Caucus.

Before the committee can start gathering signatures of registered voters in Arkansas, it needs the approval for proposed ballot language for the referendum from Republican Attorney General Tim Griffin, who rejected the group's first proposal and called it misleading.

Ballot committees have 90 days after the General Assembly adjourns in a regular session to get the required signatures for the proposed referendum. To get its referendum on the ballot, CAPES would need 54,522 signatures from registered voters, which is 6% of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. Those signatures would have to come from voters in at least 50 of Arkansas' 75 counties, under a law enacted this year and challenged in a lawsuit in federal court.

Asked about the possibility of Sanders' calling a special session on Medicaid later this year, Senate President Pro Tempore Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, said Sanders administration officials "are spending time learning [and] seeing what needs to be done" in all areas of government.

"It wouldn't surprise me if after summer we come back and we need to look at a lot of other things in a lot of areas," he said. "But as of right now, there is nothing to even consider for a special session. ... There is no doubt that the new administration is looking at Medicaid. We are looking at a lot of different areas, and once we spend the summer studying a bunch of stuff it wouldn't surprise me if we have something."

Asked about the likelihood of a special session later this year and if so on what subjects, Henning on Monday referred to Sanders' comments on the Capitol View and Talk Business & Politics programs on April 16.

"I think it's certainly possible that we could have a special [session], not a 100%. I don't want to just go in without a plan," Sanders said, according to Talk Business & Politics. "That's what we're working on right now, working with our partners in the legislature to see what the best path forward is and how we address some of the cost and have a bit more cost containment and look for longterm sustainability. Because that's what we need when it comes to our Medicaid program. It's certainly not the path that we're on right now. So we're digging deep, and that's a big priority for us over the next several months."

Department of Human Services officials have said they are unsure how many Arkansans will lose Medicaid coverage during the next six months, with Arkansas and other states returning to normal eligibility rules for Medicaid for the first time in three years as President Joe Biden ends the federal public health emergency.

Medicaid participants, and those whose coverage was extended because of special rules during the covid-19 pandemic, must go through a renewal process to determine whether they remain qualified for the program. The state Department of Human Services has been working to redetermine people's eligibility, and send renewal letters to those it needs more information on, and those who respond with information that confirms their eligibility will remain covered by Medicaid.

The state's number of Medicaid participants totaled 1.14 million March 1, up from about 920,000 in March 2020, according to state Department of Human Services records. As of March 1, the department reported the number of participants in Arkansas' Medicaid expansion program was 342,495, with 324,678 other adults and 477,928 children in the state's Medicaid program.

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