This piece is the first in a series of interviews with Opportunity Arkansas 2023 award winners, as determined by their records and leadership during this year's legislative session. We're asking legislators 10 questions and sharing their responses, in their own words, to give you a peek behind the curtain and into the policymaking process. First up, Rep. Rebecca Burkes (96%-Lowell).
Rep. Burkes: In my “real job” outside of the legislature, I am a business owner and attorney. I work primarily in commercial real estate. The majority of my career has been working in law, operations, and real estate development in the private sector. I met my husband, Aaron, in law school, and we moved to Northwest Arkansas in 1993 where I began working on the Walmart legal team. Eventually, we started a family and a real estate business which gave me a whole new perspective on the challenges small businesses face. I understand firsthand the burdens of taxes and regulations, and I know what it means to worry about making payroll and to have employees depend on you. Ultimately, this is what inspired me to run for office.
Northwest Arkansas is always ranked among the best places to live. It is a beautiful, safe community full of hardworking people with strong values. I want it to stay that way. A big part of that is creating excellent educational opportunities, unleashing entrepreneurs and businesses from burdens, and providing a level playing field for everyone with clear and consistent laws.
Rep. Burkes: Although I was new to the legislature, I was fortunate to have worked for Governor Hutchinson’s administration from 2015 to 2018 as the General Counsel and Deputy Director of the Department of Heritage. Because of that experience, I had a high-level understanding of the legislative process, bill filing, committee testimony, administrative rulemaking, etc. What was new to me were the intricacies of House rules and procedure, working with 99 other House members to get agreement on language in a particular bill, and the rapid-fire pace with which things can move - not to mention the quantity of bills moving through the process. Of the 1,439 bills which were filed in the session, 889 were passed and became law.
As for overcoming challenges, I will forever be grateful to Robin Lundstrum and the other experienced legislators who took time to mentor me. We also had a terrific freshman class, and many of the Northwest Arkansas legislators met frequently to share information and research.
Rep. Burkes: There were many highlights, and I am particularly excited about tax cuts. This year, we lowered personal state income taxes from 4.9% to 4.4% and corporate income tax rates to 4.8%. I believe we must continue reducing taxes to remain economically competitive with neighboring states which do not levy state income taxes. Without this, people and businesses will leave our state, and we will not be able to attract new businesses and job creators.
Another part of building for the future means having excellent educational opportunities and reducing violent crime. We did that this year with two extraordinary reform bills: the LEARNS Act and the Protect Arkansas Act. Both will have a huge impact on the future of Arkansas, and I am excited to see those implemented.
Rep. Burkes: My father grew up in the Appalachian region of Kentucky – an area known for high poverty and unemployment rates – not unlike many parts of Arkansas. I have known families caught in the cycle of dependency, and I know that the primary way to escape poverty is through work. We want and need our welfare programs to take care of those who need it most, but the able-bodied individuals who can work should work. Through work, individuals gain skills and knowledge, and they gain confidence, independence, and a chance for a better life. For able-bodied adults who can work, our welfare programs should act as a temporary safety net which helps propel them back into the workforce as soon as possible and not a trap that robs them of their independence.
Rep. Burkes: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Encouraging individuals to return to the workforce as soon as possible is absolutely in the individual’s best interest and paramount to a thriving economy. HB1575 strengthened the requirement that an individual receiving unemployment benefits actively look for a job, and HB1430 reduces unemployment benefits from 16 weeks to 12 weeks.
Unemployment benefits are designed to protect workers against major income losses during unemployment. We want unemployed workers to be able to meet their basic needs so they don’t have to sell assets or accept jobs below their qualifications. However, when unemployment benefits continue over long periods, they result in diminished skills and knowledge and make the individual unable to earn at a similar rate.
Rep. Burkes: The LEARNS Act is transformational for the future of Arkansas. Arkansas consistently ranks at the bottom of national education rankings, and if we don’t take bold steps now, there is no reason to think that things will change for future generations.
The LEARNS Act was a robust bill covering several impactful topics. Three areas that I know will change the education environment for years to come are those relating to school choice, recruiting and retaining excellent teachers, and dual diplomas. Once the universal ESA in LEARNS is implemented, every student in Arkansas will have a choice in where they go to school. That is huge! We want every Arkansas public school to deliver a top-notch education, but where that is not happening or where a particular student or family has different needs, LEARNS ensures that those students will have access to a quality education.
The raise in starting teacher salaries across the state will also have a dramatic impact in the long run. Every district will have the ability to attract and retain excellent teachers, and the poor performing teachers will be removed from the classroom.There is nothing more inspiring than a teacher who is passionate about learning and shares that passion with students. If we can get back to a place where Arkansas classrooms are filled with teachers who love what they do, our students will soar.
Finally, the career-ready diploma program will ensure that all graduates have access to high-wage, high-growth careers. Not all students follow the same path after high school, and we need to provide every student with the ability to earn a living.
Rep. Burkes: I rank it a 9/10. I am very proud of what we accomplished in the session. We tackled several major reforms – tax cuts, education, parole, election integrity – and it’s not easy to get everyone on board with the details, even with a supermajority of Republicans in the House. I would certainly have liked to reduce taxes further and done more to remove barriers for businesses trying to enter the market. I do think it is unbelievable that we were not able to pass a bill to end race-based affirmative action in public programs, especially when, in June, the US Supreme Court effectively ended race-based admission programs at colleges and universities across the country because these policies violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment in the US Constitution.
Rep. Burkes: We should continue with tax cuts and tax reform. We need to level the playing field and remove special interest breaks so the overall tax burden is lower for everyone. We need to continue regulatory and occupational licensing reform, and we need to put tort reform on the front burner.
Rep. Burkes: Inflation and interest rates are at the top, so keeping more money in people’s pockets through tax cuts is important. The more we can let Arkansans decide how to spend their money, the better. My constituents also talk about the implications on national security with 11,000 people per day flooding across the southern border. These are big national issues, and from a state perspective, we need to do what we can to curb the negative effects.
Rep. Burkes: Having a group like Opportunity Arkansas in our state provides a much-needed sounding board for conservative ideas. Every state is unique, and having a group who is familiar with the inner workings of our state government and who can make specific policy recommendations is critical to moving conservative ideas forward in Arkansas.
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