- Associated Press - Saturday, December 3, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas solidified its transformation from a Democratic stronghold in the South to a solidly Republican state in the November election, with the GOP expanding its hold on the Legislature and easily handing its six electoral votes to President-elect Donald Trump. The first big test for the Democrats’ path forward comes in a little more than a month, when lawmakers return to the Capitol for the 2017 legislative session.

With Republicans enjoying a supermajority in the state House and just a seat shy of that threshold in the Senate, Democrats face an uphill battle to have a say on policy decisions when the session convenes next month. But that doesn’t mean the minority party isn’t trying to find a way to use some leverage and still make some noise.

From debates over a Republican push for more tax cuts to putting the spotlight on ethics legislation, top Democrats in both chambers say there’s still a chance to make a mark despite recent routs by the GOP.

“With the numbers we have, there is no question that it will be the burden on the minority party … to always point out the flaws they see in legislation, make people aware there are alternative ways to accomplish things,” said Democratic Sen. Keith Ingram of West Memphis, the Senate minority leader. But Ingram and other top Democrats noted that the vast majority of bills approved by the Legislature enjoy bipartisan support.

One area where Democrats clearly hope to have leverage is in the debate over tax cuts. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has called for a $50 million income tax cut that would take effect in 2017, while there’s a push by others within the GOP for deeper reductions that would take place sooner. Democrats managed to secure a majority of the seats on the House panel that will take up the tax cut proposals, a move that could give them a platform for push for reductions that help lower-income taxpayers and to argue against cuts that would come at the expense of other state needs.

Another area where Democrats intend to shine the spotlight is on campaign finance and ethics reform bills, with members of the party filing a package of bills ahead of next year’s session. The proposals include an effort to require so-called dark money groups involved in campaigns to disclose their donors, increased penalties for personal use of campaign funds and a measure allowing civil lawsuits against judges convicted of bribery.

Though similar efforts haven’t advanced in past sessions, Democrats hope they can win over Republicans on at least some of the measures. If not, it may at least give them an issue to spotlight as the party tries to rebound from past election losses.

“I can’t imagine when you look at the legislation that any of these would stand out as a Republican or Democratic,” said Democratic Rep. Greg Leding of Fayetteville, who has introduced legislation that would ban individual lawmakers from forming more than one political action committee. “It’s just something that makes sense and is worthy of serious consideration.”

The bigger question is how much pull Democrats will be able to have on some of the more contentious issues in the Legislature. Anti-abortion groups are pushing for more restrictions next year, and there’s likely to be another fight over rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Republicans also have firm control of the panels that will take up any constitutional amendments referred to voters in 2018, which could bolster GOP efforts to put tort reform and potentially an effort to reinstate the state’s voter ID requirement on the ballot.

It’s also unclear just how much leverage Democrats will have in the always tenuous future of the state’s hybrid Medicaid expansion, which is providing coverage to more than 300,000 people. Trump’s election raises the prospect that the federal law that enabled the expanded coverage will be repealed.

Democrats acknowledge they’re not going to have the votes on some party-line issues, but there’s still a chance for the party to have an impact despite its ranks thinning in both chambers.

“I think where the caucus is going to make a difference is to make sure that the priorities of every Arkansan are discussed, are put forward and, working with our colleagues across the aisle, understand that people in every district of the state are fighting some of these same fights, regardless of whether they’re represented by a Republican or a Democrat,” said Democratic Rep. Michael John Gray of Augusta, the House minority leader.

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Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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