OA: Tell us a little bit about yourself: What is your “real job” outside of the legislature, your background, your family? What inspired you to run for office?
Rep. Underwood: Outside of the legislature, I am an attorney working as in-house corporate counsel in Northwest Arkansas. I also run a small business with my family located in Omaha, AR. I was born and raised in Arkansas. I obtained a bachelor’s degree and juris doctorate from the University of Arkansas. My wife and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary this summer and reside in Cave Springs.
I have always been interested in public service. While spending time in prayer in 2018, I felt called to run for office. Shortly after, a door opened giving me the opportunity to run for public office. I didn’t win that race but that started my journey to the legislature.
OA: This was your 2nd legislative session. How does it compare to past sessions and how would you grade it on a scale of 1-10?
Rep. Underwood: We have seen a lot of successes in both legislative sessions in which I have participated. However, under Governor Sanders’ leadership, we accomplished a lot of conservative goals during the last regular session: passing the LEARNS Act, criminal justice reform, passing universal licensing reciprocity, and cutting income taxes. Although I probably cannot put a number on it, I would have to rank the 2023 session as a much more successful session.
OA: There were a lot of good things that happened during the 2023 session. In your view, what was the biggest highlight and the biggest disappointment?
Rep. Underwood: The best part of this session was passing the LEARNS Act and empowering parents with their student’s education. In my opinion, the worst part was the last week of session, when the House suspended the rules, which allowed way too many bills to be pushed through the House in a matter of days. I do not believe this is a prudent policy-making process. It also effectively cut out Arkansans’ ability to voice their opinions on a number of bills.
OA: You carried a handful of bills that reduce taxes on small businesses and hardworking Arkansans. What motivated you to tackle those issues?
Rep. Underwood: Time and again we see that burdensome government overregulation and over-taxation stifle growth for small businesses. Every hurdle that the government puts in Arkansans’ way and every dollar it takes from a business owner means less opportunity to grow that business or to create jobs.
OA: There were a handful of bills you filed that became law and will help move Arkansans back to work from unemployment or welfare. What type of feedback did you receive on those and why did you think these were important?
Rep. Underwood: The feedback that I have received from my constituents and business owners has been overwhelmingly positive. After the pandemic, we have seen many challenges in the workforce and many employers struggled to find employees. The bottom line is, if you can work and you are receiving government benefits, you should work.
OA: You also had some bills that didn’t quite cross the finish line, including a bill to eliminate the grocery tax. What happened to that bill and where do you see it going? Do you plan to continue pushing for it?
Rep. Underwood: I did file several tax cut bills that did not become law, including the elimination of the grocery tax. Most of those bills were not given a committee hearing. I believe there is value in filing those bills and starting the conversation. My hope is that there will be more momentum to move those bills forward in future sessions.
OA: The next legislative session isn’t until 2025. What is your focus on between now and then and what do you think the focus of the 2025 session should be?
Rep. Underwood: Although the next regular session is not until 2025, we did just complete a special session to cut income taxes. We also will have a fiscal session next year and that is an opportunity to evaluate and reduce government spending. Between now and the next regular session, I will also be focusing on assisting constituents and thinking of new ways we can cut government overreach.
We continue to reduce taxes as we work toward phasing out the income tax. The primary focus of the 2025 session should be ways to reduce the tax burden so Arkansans have more of their hard-earned money in their pockets.
Rep. Underwood: I know what we are talking about around our kitchen table, and what I am hearing from many constituents, is about the high prices we are paying for everything under the Biden administration. “Bidenomics” seems to be about making Americans pay high gas prices, higher grocery bills, and price Americans out of home ownership with increased interest rates.
OA: You were a big supporter of The LEARNS Act. What pieces of that legislation do you think are most important? What feedback have you been getting from your constituents regarding LEARNS?
Rep. Underwood: In my opinion, the best part about the LEARNS Act is it empowers parents to make the best decision for their child’s education through Education Freedom Accounts. I ran for office as a supporter of school choice and educational freedom. Constituents want more oversight and control over their child’s education. The feedback from constituents has been positive.
OA: You also passed legislation to amend the petition process to ensure rural Arkansans have a voice in what goes on the ballot. Would you mind explaining why you felt that issue was important?
Rep. Underwood: The Arkansas Constitution has been amended more than 100 times. We have seen out-of-state special interest groups flood Arkansas with millions of dollars to amend our state constitution in an effort to push their liberal agenda. Typically, they gather most of their signatures from the more urban, populated, and liberal areas of Arkansas while ignoring the rest of the state. In addition, they attempt to mislead voters with deceptive advertising campaigns. This change requires signature gatherers to engage more of the state so that more Arkansans have a voice on what will or will not be placed on the ballot.
It is disappointing that the law is caught up in a lawsuit, but not surprising that out-of-state special interest groups would devote resources to avoid engaging Arkansas voters. What is surprising is that when the bill was heard in Senate committee, the senator who filed suit failed to attend his own committee meeting both times it was heard. Instead of opposing the bill through his duly elected responsibilities, he is wasting taxpayer money by filing a lawsuit. I assume being involved in a lawsuit garners more attention for one’s profile than sitting in a committee meeting.
The plain language of the Arkansas Constitution states that signatures must be gathered from “at least 15 counties.” In essence, our Constitution sets a minimum number of counties that signatures must be obtained from so that there is greater participation in the process. By increasing the number of counties, we further that goal of increased participation. This preserves the integrity of our Constitution, and I am hopeful our courts will preserve our democratic process by allowing more Arkansans to be involved in the process.
OA: You were also a recipient of an Opportunity Arkansas award for some of your great policy work, earning a 91% on our scorecard. What was it like having an in-state conservative group to partner with during the session?
Rep. Underwood: I really appreciate Opportunity Arkansas’ commitment to conservative policy. It was great for working through ideas and having OA as an advocate to advance the conservative cause.
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