EXCLUSIVE: Sarah Huckabee Sanders Outlines Her First-Session Wins As Governor Of Arkansas, Shares Plans For Future

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Henry Rodgers Chief National Correspondent
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In an exclusive interview with the Daily Caller, Republican Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders outlined her accomplishments in her first session as governor and shared what she hopes to focus on during the next session.

Sanders discussed her actions on a number of issues she believes are most important to the people of Arkansas, such as education reform, tax cuts, fighting crime and growing the state’s outdoor economy. She also explained what people can expect from the next Arkansas legislative session, saying she hopes to focus on lowering the state income tax, reducing government waste and slashing overall government spending.

She also touted the state’s education reform bill, the Literacy, Empowerment, Accountability, Readiness, Networking, and School safety (LEARNS) Act. The legislation, which Sanders signed in March, establishes a school choice program that raises the number of students eligible every year, giving vouchers of $7,413 to students outside of the public school system.

The law also bans lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in K-5 classrooms.

“Arkansas LEARNS is about meeting teachers’ needs, respecting parents’ rights, and giving our kids the quality education they deserve. We took starting teacher pay from some of the lowest in the country to now one of the highest, giving every teacher at least a $2,000 bonus, invested in early literacy and pre-k, and launched new high school career and technical training. The state will cover the costs associated with this law and it fully funded the teacher pay raises,” Sanders told the Caller.

On Thursday afternoon, Sanders signed legislation that will prevent school districts from auto-drafting union dues from teachers’ paychecks.

“We wanted to make sure that we were actually empowering the teachers to decide for themselves whether or not they want to participate and join a union or association without the coercion of the strong-arm tactics that we’re used to the union bosses using,” she said. “I’m always looking at opportunities to empower our teachers, our parents and our citizens and we think this does exactly that.”

Sanders also touted her social media bill, which she signed Wednesday. The law requires minors to get parental consent before signing up for major social media platforms. (RELATED: EXCLUSIVE: Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders Says Arkansas Will File Lawsuit Against The EPA)

“We’re requiring new social media users to verify their age through a third-party validator. New users under 18 will need their parents’ permission to use the app,” she explained. “We know that social media is dangerous for young kids. Depression and loneliness among teenagers have doubled since social media use became widespread. A third of teenage girls have considered suicide in the past year.”

“You don’t have to be 18 to get a social media account, you just have to have your parents permission,” she continued. “So we’re not prohibiting anybody from accessing social media … Frankly, we want to see kids off screens and outdoors … Just another way to encourage kids to put the phones and screens down and get outside and explore our beautiful state.”

Sanders also mentioned the crime bill she signed into law, saying it will force the state’s worst violent felons to serve 100 percent of the jail time to which they’re sentenced and requires that all felons serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before they become eligible for release with supervision. The crime bill also allocates funds for a new state prison. (RELATED: ‘Doubling Down On Crazy’: Sarah Huckabee Sanders Slams Biden In GOP Rebuttal To State Of The Union Address)

“One of the things that has been a problem — not just in Arkansas, but around the country — is the push to let these violent repeat offenders back out into communities. And that’s something that we’re simply not going to tolerate here,” she said. “And so by cracking down on the violent repeat offenders, we hope to reduce crime here in the state while also addressing the capacity issue by building a new prison. We haven’t done that in nearly two decades. Not since my dad [former Gov. Mike Huckabee] was governor, and sitting in this office, has the state of Arkansas built a new prison.”

“Look that’s not a sexy talking point,” Sanders added. “And it’s certainly not something I wish that we were having to spend our time and our resources on as a state. But the simple reality is we can’t allow people who break the law and do heinous crimes, to go right back into our community so that they can continue to do it. I’m a parent of three kids, this is my home. And I want the city and communities that my kids and every kid growing up in the state of Arkansas are in to be safe. These are measures that we’re taking to do exactly that.”

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, governor of Arkansas, speaks while unveiling the Arkansas LEARNS education bill at the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock, Arkansas, US, on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. (Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Arkansas also passed major tax cuts during Sanders’ first session as governor, which she explained in detail while outlining her plan to reduce state income tax to zero.

“One of the priorities that we rolled out during the campaign and focused heavily on during transition and really wanted to target during the session [was] continuing to responsibly phase out the state income tax. And we took steps to do that and made [a] $150 million cut to the personal income tax, and just under $40 million off of the corporate income tax, which covers about 1.1 million Arkansans, which is the majority of taxpayers in this state. Anybody making over $24,700 will receive a tax cut here in Arkansas,” Sanders said.

“We’re gonna continue chipping away at that until hopefully we get it down to zero. But as we’re sandwiched between Texas and Tennessee who have no state income tax, Arkansas has to become more competitive. And that’s one of the ways that we’re doing that. And I’m really proud of the fact that we were able to give money back to the hard working people of Arkansas,” she continued. (RELATED: EXCLUSIVE: Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders To Sign Executive Order Promoting Hunting, Fishing)

Sanders told the Caller she is very proud of her first legislative session as governor and laid out some of her goals for the next session.

“We are extremely excited for it to be over but really proud of how this first legislative session went,” she said. “We set out with a few key priorities and we were able to pass pretty historic landmark legislation in each of those priority areas. So really proud of the fact that we have the most comprehensive education package, certainly in our state’s history, I think anywhere in the country, as well as what we call the Safer, Stronger Arkansas legislative package … and also a huge focus and push to increase and grow our state’s outdoor economy.”

“We want to continue chipping away at that state income tax. I’m hopeful that in our next session, we can continue moving that ball down the road and get more money back into taxpayers’ hands, as well as a look at overall government waste and government spending,” Sanders continued. “I’m a big believer that we have lots of waste and we’re spending, wasting money and not getting all the results we want. I think there are a lot of places in that space that we have room to look at. So those will be some of the biggest things. Our next session is a fiscal session and that’ll be early next year. So it’ll be heavily focused on budget and financial issues here in the state.”  (RELATED: EXCLUSIVE: Gov. Sanders Endorses Legislation Requiring Major Social Media Platforms Verify Minors’ Ages Before Granting Access)

During the interview, Sanders mentioned two fellow Republicans who she said have been instrumental in her success as governor: state Senate President Pro Tempore Bart Hester and Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd. The Caller spoke with both Hester and Shepherd about her first session as governor, with both saying she went above and beyond her campaign promises.

“So as governor, I say that she’s she has been everything that she told the people of Arkansas that she would be. She doesn’t waste her time with meetings that are not productive. And if you have a meeting with her, she expects that it’d be productive and we’re working on real issues in Arkansas. Every time I walk out of a meeting with her, it just makes me prouder that she’s our governor, because I just see the different mindset that she has and just the absolute focus on making Arkansas Great,” Hester told the Caller.

He singled out education reform as the biggest accomplishment of the session.

“Education reform is something that the entire state of Arkansas should be proud of. We’re going to pay our teachers what they deserve,” Hester said, adding that the state education system would focus on “student success” rather than “institutional success.”

“I believe that we are going to reap the rewards for generations to come in Arkansas,” he continued. “So when you’ve been around a while, like I have, you start thinking about, ‘Hey, I’ve been doing this a long time. What difference have we made?’ And I feel like we’ve made more change that will affect generations in the last 100 days than maybe we have in 10 years prior since I’ve been in the legislature.”

Shepherd also said education reform was a massive accomplishment for the state and praised Sanders’ work as governor.

“I think her first 100 days have been great. I think she’s been very effective, and she was overwhelmingly elected governor and talked about a lot of bold big ideas on the campaign trail, and she’s followed through on those as she entered office and as she entered this legislative session. I think that she has backed up what she talked about on the campaign trail by following through and has made the most of her 1st legislative session in the governor’s office,” Shepherd said.

“I really think that the LEARNS bill, the education reform bill that was passed, would have to say that’s been the biggest achievement just because it is transformative. It’s big. It’s bold,” he continued. “And as far as the legislative session went, that particular bill and the idea of educational reform really dominated the vast majority of the session.”

The next session is a fiscal session and will take place in April of 2024.