While the 90th General Assembly finally ended this past week, Gov. Asa Hutchinson quietly celebrated his 100th day as Arkansas’ 46th Governor.
He appears this month on the cover of GOVERNING magazine, a belt-way publication featuring governors, congressmen, senators and movers and shakers in government circles from the municipal to the White House. The story is well written, fairly researched and gives most of us a birds-eye view of the first 100 days of this “New Day” in Arkansas governance. The story, told from a national perspective, however, does not examine all of highs and lows we have seen here in the state.
Changes don’t always come easy, but in the first 100 days of Gov. Hutchinson’s term it appears change came easier than expected. Looking back to his inaugural address, the dye was cast by the new governor.
"Sometimes change is resisted because we are content and comfortable in the status quo," Hutchinson said after being sworn in. "Let me tell you, friends and colleagues, that the status quo for Arkansas is not acceptable.”
To better assess these first 100 days, I’ve tried to break down the performance of the new governor and his office simply by a letter grade.
A- for Image
Gov. Hutchinson looked very gubernatorial in every way possible early on. He gave not one, two but three major policy speeches, often taking the issues (such as the Private Option) to the state’s Medical School Campus for the public to see he meant business. Later in a controversy surrounding a bill which would allow for forms of discrimination, Hutchinson played the diverse opinions within his own family, publicly noting that his youngest and most liberal son Seth of Austin, Texas., a labor organizer for a teacher’s union, disagreed with the measure. While silent on his own feelings, playing the disagreement around the family dinner table worked for Asa Hutchinson.
C- on Controversy
Erupting in this session was the ongoing saga of state Rep. Justin Harris, R-West Fork, on re-homing his two adoptive daughters to a family friend who in turn sexually abused one of the girls. Such a shocking revelation could have threatened to stain the Hutchinson’s brand. Hutchinson deftly and quickly called for an internal investigation into Arkansas’ Department of Human Services and distanced himself from Harris, who had played a role in the Conservative win of the state GOP, but was a minor second-tier legislator.
Later during the debate over extending equal protection rights to Gays, Lesbians, Bi-Sexual, and Transgender individuals, Hutchinson, who saw the public relations nightmare erupting in Indiana, made a bold move. Against the powerful Family Council’s wishes to have HB 1228 pulled back, Hutchinson successfully moved to amend the bill and deflect the bad press and voter pressure.
The third and most damming of the C- grade came when Hutchinson allowed state Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, to push a bill that would negate any type of civil rights ordinance passed by local governments – essentially taking away local control and passing it to state control. Hutchinson wisely allowed this bill to take effect without his signature – the only form of disgust allowed other than outright veto. Behind closed doors, I am told, Hester was asked to pull down or change the bill, but refused.
B in Appointments
As always when a new regime takes over in Little Rock there are shuffles in leadership. Several key players in the Hutchinson election were rewarded for their loyalty. Some like former state Sen. Johnny Key of Mountain Home, had to have legislation passed to allow them to serve in roles Hutchinson had picked for his faithful. Key, who had years of education policy creation was not, by state law at the time, eligible to serve as Director of the state Education Department. Hutchinson got all that changed for Key. What keeps Hutchinson from a higher grade here is his inability to find some truly good people in key spots. His appointment of former state Senator Tracy Steele, a Democrat, to a minor, yet $100,000 plus post watching over long-term care licensing, is simple pandering. Steel has been a disappointment in previous posts in state government.
A- on Public Relations
As proof of his PR ability (and that of his staff) our new governor has a high post-Legislative Session approval rating of 61%. He has managed some direct, succinct quotes in the public and has not, as of yet, lost his temper in the public setting. Behind closed doors, some legislators speak of his “coolness” to ideas not of his own and his down-right stubbornness to divert from a chosen path – even when the alternative would be easier and better.
B- in Legislative wrangling
If the late days of the session were calmer and less filled with powerful protests over a bill (HB 1228) the Governor should have quieted at first blush, he might get a higher grade. I think Hutchinson had the power to separate the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and General Robert E. Lee state observance, if only he had wanted to do so. Early on pushing for the Private Option and his balanced budget before the new legislators found where the state Capitol mail was delivered, was a good move. Some complain he moved too fast. But that’s better than trying in the waning days to get major pieces of legislation beyond the myriad agendas of Legislators.
B on Now What
With several Task Forces set up to tackle problems the Legislature should and could address, what is our governor going to be up to? Some say Economic Development. I hope he can later point to projects he and his new AEDC man have developed rather than simple expansions that were coming despite who sat in the corner office on the Second Floor of the State Capitol. He tried shoring up that grade this week with another “no” to expanding corporate hog farming permits on the Buffalo River. Nice try.
C on needing a Special Session
Late in the short, 81 day session, Hutchinson spoke about calling the Legislature back this summer to take care of some other issues. One is setting a March 2016 Presidential Primary as part of the SEC 2016 Primary across the South. This could have been done in session. Remember Governor, Special Sessions cost tax monies to operate? Money, I fear your tax-cut burdened budget simply does not have.