In first State of the State address, Gov. Sanders touts building a 'better, safer' Arkansas

Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders delivers her first state of the state address to a joint session of the General Assembly on April 10, 2024.
Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders delivers her first state of the state address to a joint session of the General Assembly on April 10, 2024.
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Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders in her first State of the State address on Wednesday touted her accomplishments since her January 2023 inauguration and emphasized her focus on law enforcement and criminal justice, education and lower taxes.

During her speech before a joint session of the Arkansas legislature, the first-term Republican governor highlighted a string of high-profile conservative issues, and touched the regulation of social media, economic growth and the benefits of drawing people and companies to to the state.

"Compared to last year’s inaugural address, today is a bit more low-key," Sanders said. "But what today lacks in fanfare, it makes up for in substance. Last year, I made promises. This year, I’m reporting results."

"We are building a better, safer, stronger Arkansas," she added. "In fact, our work is making Arkansas a model for the nation."

She also addressed public health, saying that "we’re making progress on our maternal health crisis," citing an executive order from earlier this year.

Sanders began her speech by looking back on the deadly tornadoes that hit eastern Arkansas just over a year ago and the physical recovery of towns like Wynne, Arkansas.

Recovery from dire circumstances was a theme that she continued in describing the many challenges that continue to face Arkansas, saying that “Arkansas had deep, entrenched problems when I took office.”

She said the state was “48th in America for starting teacher pay; 45th in the nation for literacy, the highest tax burden in the region; the highest violent crime rate in the nation.”

Sanders calls education her 'top priority'

Sanders said education reform is her “top priority” and pointed to the 2023 passage of the LEARNS Act, calling it “the largest transformation of Arkansas education in modern history – and the largest single investment in our public schools ever.”

The LEARNS Act provides public school dollars for students to attend private and parochial schools, raises teacher pay and removes barriers to dismissing teachers without cause, among many other provisions.

“This time next year, we will have universal education freedom for the first time in Arkansas history,” she said, referring to the full implementation of the LEARNS Act.

Application for the program “for next year are now open to more families,” she said, including “the children of first responders, law enforcement, veterans, and any student attending a 'D' rated school.”

Sanders said that “before this year, only a third of Arkansas third graders could read at grade level,” but that the LEARNS Act provides for 120 literacy coaches across the state.

“Year One of the LEARNS Act targeted the most at-risk students in our state. But education freedom is for everyone, and soon, Education Freedom Accounts will be, too,” Sanders said.

Her budget proposal for fiscal year 2025 calls for a 200% increase in funding for private school vouchers.

Speaking to her social policies regarding education, she said that “We banned indoctrination in our schools, nonsense words like ‘birthing person,’ and men in women’s sports."

Policing and criminal justice

Sanders shared her vision for policing with an anecdote about a state trooper who rescued an elderly man who ran out of gas on the highway from freezing to death and paid for his hotel room. That officer, Trooper Brandon Bird, was present as a guest at the address.

“When the left calls to defund the police, these are the troopers they want to get rid of,” she said.

At the same time, she also called for a harsher approach to criminal justice.

She celebrated legislation such as the Protect Act, which increases sentencing for people convicted of a variety of crimes, and “Death by Delivery" legislation, which allows the state to charge drug dealers with murder for overdose deaths.

“Some of our leaders think it’s compassionate to coddle criminals,” she said. “They need a reality check. I’ve been to the southern border.”

“Joe Biden’s ‘compassion’ lets the cartels traffic millions of people and deadly drugs into our country,” she continued.

Sanders criticized criminal justice reforms which reduce sentences for prison inmates, saying that those policies are harmful to public safety.

“This isn’t compassion,” she said of such reforms. “It’s cruelty.”

“That’s why we’ve increased [Arkansas State Police] ranks by more than 17% in just one year since I’ve taken office. And it’s why I’m working to grow the force by more than 100 additional officers.”

Economy and taxation

“As revenues climb and costs slow, we’ll have room to cut taxes. We’ve already done so by more than $300 million,” Sanders said. “I’m committed to responsibly phasing out our state income tax rate.”

She contrasted the optimistic picture of growth and improvement in Arkansas with what she characterized as poor conditions in many other parts of the country.

“Our national economy is dragging. Blue states are shrinking," she said. "But Arkansas is roaring ahead."

She also pointed to 21,000 new residents in the state as another sign of success.

“I’ve met transplants everywhere I’ve gone” in Arkansas, she said. “Those newcomers were joined by companies from all over the country and the world.”

She referred to companies from Europe and Asia which she said had proposed investments in Arkansas to her during trips abroad.

She also said that under her administration, manufacturers from industries including steel, firearms, lithium mining and military weaponry have opened operations in Arkansas. She called Camden, Arkansas, “the arsenal of freedom, supplying Israel’s Iron Dome, America’s Marine Corps, and service members across the globe.”

Sanders also emphasized her commitment to increasing regulations on tech companies in order to protect children from the harmful effects of social media and other technology.

“Big Tech, just like Joe Camel, says it’s kids’ right to use their addictive products," she said. "I disagree."

This article originally appeared on Fort Smith Times Record: Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders delivers State of the State speech