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The Arkansas General Assembly gathers for the 2024 Fiscal Session from Apr. 10 to May 9.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders gives first State of The State address

Arkansas Governor-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks during her election night party Tuesday in Little Rock
Will Newton
Arkansas Governor-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks during her election night party Tuesday in Little Rock

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave her first State of the State address Wednesday, hitting on familiar talking points of education and small government.

The last time she gave a speech before the full Arkansas Legislature was her inauguration. Sanders called Wednesday's speech a little more “low key.”

The governor touted legislation she championed in the last session, including Arkansas LEARNS, crime laws, tax cuts and bills to regulate social media.

“Last year, I made promises,” she said. “This year, I am reporting results.”

Sanders said she was concerned about what she saw as high taxes and crime, and low literacy rates and low teacher pay when she started in the office. She said the work to alleviate those problems “made some uncomfortable.”

Sanders is adamant her administration will keep government spending at a minimum. She talked again about her plans to only increase the state's budget by 1.78% instead of the 3% increase the state averages.

“If you send me a budget that funds critical services for Arkansas while slowing the growth of government, I will sign it,” Sanders told lawmakers.

This is part of the governor's overall push to keep cutting taxes, with the goal of gradually phasing out the state income tax. She says there will be more room to cut taxes as time goes on.

“There are people outside this chamber, and maybe a few inside, who want to distract us from these reforms,” she said. “I beg of you, do not let them.”

Sanders recounted hosting a town hall in Heber Springs, where she realized that many people are moving to Arkansas from out-of-state.

“I was taking questions and I was surprised when half the crowd sounded like they had come from 'The Sopranos' central casting,” she said. “I thought, do people from the northeast have a way of talking over everyone, or do we have our own little Italy on the shores of Greers Ferry? The answer is yes, and yes.”

She said she then realized she was talking to “transplants” who “loved our freedom-loving state," saying the state added 21,000 new Arkansans last year.


Sanders reiterated her love of the LEARNS Act. She brought guests to the speech, including a child with Down Syndrome whose family received “education freedom account” money to put him in a private school.

She said 50% of those students have a learning disability, although critics have pointed outthat many of those students don't fit legitimate diagnosis criteria. She said 18,000 people applied for the money on the first day of the application period.

“In many districts there wasn't a single educator making more than $50,000 a year,” Sanders said, referencing the LEARNS Act stipulation mandating starting teacher salaries of $50,000. Critics have pointed out that the funding mechanisms can hurt schools, but it does rank Arkansas one of the highest states for starting teacher salaries.

“Send me a budget that continues to fully fund the LEARNS Act, and I will sign it,” Sanders stated.


"Some of our leaders think it is compassionate to coddle criminals,” Sanders said, adding that State Police seized half a pound of fentanyl at a routine traffic stop “which is enough to kill 100,000 people.” The governor has worked to pass laws making it harder for criminals to get out of prison and to increase penalties on fentanyl dealers whose drugs cause overdose deaths.

She was also joined by State Trooper Brandon Bird, who she says once bought a hotel room for a man whose car broke down on a freezing cold night. Sanders tied this into her desire to spend $3.8 million on a new state trooper school.

“When the left calls to ‘defund the police’ remember, we do not need less of Trooper Bird. We need a lot more like him.”


The governor talked about traveling the state in the aftermath of last year's tornado outbreak and being moved by the personal stories of recovery.

The east Arkansas city of Wynne received heavy damage from the storm, and saw a visit from the governor two days later. In her speech Wednesday, Sanders talked about meeting people who lost their homes and livelihoods from the tornado. In one story, a group of high school kids searched around the town to find flags which had blown off the school flag pole during the storm.

“In government,” she says, “It's easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Let us not lose sight of the people we serve.”

She also recognized a Jacksonville preacher whose church was destroyed during last year’s tornado outbreak, but was later mostly rebuilt.

The legislature’s fiscal session will last for 30 days at most, unless lawmakers vote to extend it. Lawmakers will vote on the budgets of different state agencies throughout the session.

Copyright 2024 Little Rock Public Radio. To see more, visit Little Rock Public Radio.

Josie Lenora is a news anchor and reporter for KUAR News at Little Rock Public Radio. She has listened to KUAR and NPR since she was a young child growing up in Little Rock and says she is thrilled to give back to an organization she loves. Josie was previously an intern in the fall of 2021 assisting in production, then spent another semester with the station interning in the newsroom in the spring of 2022.