STATE OF THE STATE: Gov. Sarah Sanders delivers her speech.

Gov. Sarah Sanders gave her first “state of the state address” Wednesday afternoon to a packed chamber of the state House of Representatives as the fiscal session began. The governor’s talk led with Arkansas LEARNS, prison expansions and the relatively small state budget she proposed last month.

Sanders made no reference to the soon-to-be-released legislative audit concerning her pricey purchase of a mysterious lectern last summer, or to the dramatic difference between expectations and reality regarding tourism turnout for Monday’s total solar eclipse.

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Instead, she looked back through rose-colored glasses at the “incredible year” that’s passed since last year’s legislative session. (The 2024 fiscal session will be much shorter than 2023’s general session and is focused mostly on passing budget bills rather than new laws.)

Sanders told lawmakers Wednesday that if she receives a budget that aims to slow the growth of government but expands state services, backs the blue, and fully funds the LEARNS Act, she will sign it.

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The governor’s proposed budget calls for a 1.76% increase over the previous fiscal year, or only about $109 million. That change is smaller compared to recent years, and the largest portion of the increase is expected to go toward schools and the LEARNS Act, the 2023 bill that overhauled K-12 education in Arkansas.

Unsurprisingly, Sanders hyped up LEARNS throughout her 30-minute speech. She touted educational freedom, how school vouchers are helping students with learning disabilities, and the new law’s implementation of literacy tutors for third graders. She shouted out one family in attendance that includes a son with Down syndrome and is benefiting from school choice, saying they are an example of the impact of LEARNS.

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She also mentioned her trade trips to Europe and Asia, the lithium drilling operations coming to southwest Arkansas, and her plans to add officers to the Arkansas State Police. Sanders also noted plans to build a new 3,000-bed prison and how she has deployed National Guard troops to the southern border.

Sanders, the first woman and mother to be governor of Arkansas, said she’s looking forward to exploring ways to cut down on maternal mortality. It seems like Sanders is hellbent on refusing to extend Medicaid for 12 months to new moms, but she has vowed to improve access to existing resources. 

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When it comes to the question of children using social media, Sanders said she’s not backing down. “Arkansas will lead on this, just like we have done public education and safety, because we have to,” she said. “And I fully expect that Big Tech will take us to court, but we will fight them because our children’s future depends on it.”

Sprinkled throughout the speech, Sanders slid in comments about how she banned “nonsense words” like “birthing person”; that her husband, Bryan Sanders, is working toward improving the state’s recreation offerings; and how some state leaders like to “coddle criminals” when it comes to repeat offenders.

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As she wrapped up, Sanders reminisced about the March 31, 2023, tornadoes in Central Arkansas and Wynne. She again shouted out someone in the crowd, a Jacksonville pastor, and made several references to her faith.