In January, the 90th General Assembly will convene with large Republican majorities in the Arkansas House and Senate as well as a full slate of GOP constitutional officeholders, including Gov.-elect Asa Hutchinson.
Rep. Jeremy Gillam (R-Judsonia) is the Speaker-elect and will preside over the House of Representatives. The House Speaker is the most powerful leadership position in the chamber and has the authority to appoint chairmen and vice-chairmen to various House committees.
Entering his third term, the 38-year old Gillam represents District 45, which encompasses part of White County, where he manages a large family-owned berry farming operation. He is a graduate of Beebe High School and attended Arkansas State University in Beebe, receiving degrees in criminology and psychology from Arkansas State University. He and his wife, Carissa, have two young sons.
Talk Business & Politics Editor-in-Chief Roby Brock caught up with Speaker-elect Gillam a few days before next week’s new member orientation to discuss his expectations for this large freshmen class, the big issues of the session, and how efficiently the 90th General Assembly could accomplish its business.
Roby Brock: Next week, you have new member orientation in the House, a whole week full of activity. What will be going on?
Speaker-elect Jerry Gillam: Well it’s mainly going to be making sure that they get oriented to the overall process that we go through, sort of the rules and procedures and just kind of the rhythm of the way life will be down here. We try to give them a taste of that for a week at least, and before the holidays and then bring them back in January for showtime. So, its mainly just going to be showing them how bills are filed, how you run them in committees, how they run on the floor. Making sure that they understand that process is what the main focus of the session is going to be.
Brock: You have a really big freshman class coming in, 40 members. Have you had a chance to meet with some of them? What are your initial impressions of this incoming class?
Gillam: Initial impressions have been fantastic. I had a chance to meet with about half of them back in June that were unopposed in the November races and we brought them in for a couple of days and were able to do kind of a little mini-orientation with them. So I already knew about half of them and then have been able to engage with a few of them on the campaign trail as they were finishing up the races in November.
But since then, I have been able to meet and get to know some of the other ones that I hadn’t had a chance to previously, and I’m very impressed. We have a tremendous amount of talent that’s incoming with this freshman class and being able to couple that with the talent that we already had in the returning members, I think is going to make for an impressive House of Representatives.
Brock: Is it going to be a tough challenge for you? I mean dealing with that many new members in one fell swoop, I mean that has to be a management challenge.
Gillam: Well, I think since so many of them have been able to be a part of what we’ve been doing in the summer and in the fall with the different committee here and since they were unopposed, they have already kind of integrated themselves a lot into what we’re doing. So it’s not really trying to necessarily engage with 40 people at one time, as much as it is about, you know, 20.
And actually my incoming freshman class was larger than this freshman class. So, I’ve had some conversations with Speaker Moore, on how he managed it and he’s given me some tips… So, I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. I think it’s going to be a very smooth transition.
Brock: Are you giving some thought to your committee chairmanships and vice chairmanships? That’ll be a big deal. I know you’re not going to tip your hand today, but you have said previously that you’d be representative of the makeup of the body. How will you incorporate Republicans, Democrats and new members into these chair positions?
Gillam: The one good thing about it is because we’ve got that abundance, you know I’ve got a lot of great people to choose from. We’re definitely in that process now of looking at who all wound up on what committees. You know, because that’s one thing, if you wound up with, you know, 12 of your top people all on the same exact committee, that limits your options on some things. So we’re looking into who all wound up on the different committees and which ones have the heavier legislative workloads and have the time. There are constraints that might keep them from taking on those chair or vice-chair roles and we’re just kind of working into the process. But I think we’re going to be able to have a good field when we start the selection of the leadership.
Brock: Do you anticipate appointing some Democrats to a chair or vice-chair position?
Gillam: Yes, we’ve got extremely talented folks from the Democratic caucus and I think with their experience and skill sets, I think there are extremely viable candidates to take some of these committees and take their chairmanships.
Brock: Some folks would say this could be a particularly long legislative session with new members and all the issues you have to tackle. Are you going to get out of here for berry picking season?
Gillam: Yes, my goal is 85 days. That’s what we’re going to organize everything around and try to get in and out in 85 days. Senator Dismang and I have talked about that and the ambitious nature of it possibly, but we feel like you’ve got to set your goals pretty high and reach for them, so we’re going to try to get in and out as quick as we can.
Brock: Top couple of issues that you think you’re going to be dealing with this session?
Gillam: I think truthfully, most of everything is going to be driven from the budget. I mean that’s the main reason we’re here, that’s what we’re charged to do. A lot of that is to set a budget. The extra stuff is kind of the icing on the cake in reality from what our actual charge is in the constitution. So the budget’s going to be our focus. From that, you’ll have the private option, corrections, we’re going to have to deal with some transportation funding issues. We’ve still got that systemic problem and the funding of the highways and we’re going to have to deal with it. So we’ve got several big issues, but as I said earlier, I feel like with the talent, experience, skills set that the members have, we’re going to meet that challenge.