Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday (Dec. 20) outlined 18 priorities for the upcoming legislative session, 16 of them centered around economic development, education, and government efficiency, along with another separating the days honoring civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King and Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Most of the priorities had been announced previously. Hutchinson said in a press conference that he was outlining them in one place “so that you all can follow and grade me in the end.”
Arkansas is one of three states that celebrate the King and Lee birthdays on the same date. The governor supported unsuccessful efforts to separate the holidays in the 2015 session. In 2017, it will be a priority to move the Lee commemoration to the fall, he said.
The governor’s economic priorities include a $50.5 million income tax for lower income Arkansans, providing a tax exemption for military retiree benefits, and a $2 million accelerator program where the state partners with the private sector to grow technology companies. Hutchinson said his staff has received phone calls from retirees across the country with an interest in the tax cut, which will be offset by ending exemptions such as one for manufactured houses. Asked about concerns about ending that particular exemption, Hutchinson said he must find some way to pay for the $13 million military retiree tax cut, which he hopes will encourage retirees to move to Arkansas.
Not on the list were any bills related to highways, which Hutchinson said could come later, or health care. The governor said he hopes the state has settled the issue on Arkansas Works, his version of the private option, the state program that uses federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private health insurance for lower-income Arkansans.
The state recently received a waiver from the Obama administration allowing the changes that turned the program into Arkansas Works. Now it must wait to see what happens in Washington with health care under President-elect Donald Trump’s administration. Previous legislative sessions have featured battles over whether the program could attain the three-fourths majority needed to fund the program. Hutchinson said legislators have approved the program and should wait to see what happens next in Washington.
“I am hopeful and somewhat optimistic that there will not be any really serious debate over the Arkansas Works funding again since we’ve had that debate before. … I think the message in this session should be stability,” he said. “It should be a reaffirmation of what we’ve already done and let’s move forward until we have additional reform opportunities from the Trump administration that we need to respond to.”
Also not on the agenda would a bill restricting transgender bathroom rights. Hutchinson said there has been “a lot of discussion” with legislators regarding what has happened in other states. His view is that courts are considering the issue, there is a new presidential administration that should be less intrusive than the previous one, and the state doesn’t have a problem with the issue at the moment.
Hutchinson did not list any legislation dealing with abortion or other social issues. Asked why, he explained, “When I ran for governor, I ran for governor on being the jobs governor, creating more sustained economic growth in this state. That doesn’t mean I’m less pro-life. That doesn’t mean I’m less concerned about other issues, but these are what I believe demand my attention for legislative action that fit within those priorities that I’ve outlined.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, said afterward that he also wants to keep the focus off hot-button social issues. However, like Hutchinson, he said there likely will be surprises.
“There are unknowns in our budget (related) to the Medicaid program in the state. Across the board, there are a lot of items in our state where we are going to have to take a wait-and-see approach,” he said.
Dismang said lawmakers plan to meet next week to discuss key legislation that will be brought up in the first weeks of the assembly.
“We are going to have conversations about that starting this week as to what we are going to look at and what should come first,” Dismang said. “I would not be surprised to see some of the tax cut initiatives kind of take center stage in the beginning, mainly because of their impact on the budget and revenue. It will be important for us to take care of those things in the beginning.”
Among the governor’s priorities regarding efficiency and government transformation is a comprehensive law that would eliminate 19 state boards and commissions through consolidations. (See the list of 19 at the end of this story.)
Hutchinson also wants to transfer the Office of Energy from the Arkansas Economic Development Commission to the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality; move the Office of Health Information Technology, which currently stands alone, to the Department of Health; and move the War Memorial Stadium Commission to the Department of Parks and Tourism. Another piece of legislation would create a centrally controlled waste tire program within the Department of Environmental Quality.
Other government transformation priorities that previously had been announced include reforming the state pay plan to make salaries more competitive; a $26 million increase for foster care funding; and transferring $8.4 million from the Tobacco Settlement Fund to provide services for Arkansans with developmental disabilities who are currently on a wait list.
Hutchinson wants to set aside $5 million to create a pilot program where three regional facilities would evaluate and treat individuals whom law enforcement personnel deem in need of services. He said Sebastian County is likely to be one of the first three because it already is a leader in training law enforcement personnel to address mental health issues.
Hutchinson’s education priorities also have been mostly already announced. Those include a revamping of the state’s higher education formula so that institutions are funded based on student progression rather than enrollment. Other priorities include an additional $5 million for the governor’s computer science education program; $3 million to improve the quality of pre-K teachers and programs; the ArFuture Grant, which pays two-year tuition costs for high-wage, high-need job skills; and changing the state’s Teacher Opportunity Program, which provides tuition reimbursements, to teachers seeking additional degrees in reading, special education, pre-K, computer science and science and math courses.
The governor’s other listed priority is restoring funding to senior citizens and libraries.
Hutchinson had previously expressed support for some type of merit-based appointment process for Arkansas Supreme Court justices. He said he has had conversations with legislators about the issue, but no consensus exists among supporters, and a number of legislators are opposed.
Hutchinson was asked about his response to recent acts of violence in Little Rock. He said he wakes up thinking about what he could differently as governor. He said those acts reaffirmed his commitment to the death penalty because “it sends a signal to our society that violence ultimately leads in death, and that people have to be accountable for the most egregious, violent crimes in our society.”
BOARDS AND COMMISSIONS TO BE CONSOLIDATED OR ELIMINATED
Arkansas Authority on Financing Hospital Equipment
Arkansas Board of Health Education
Arkansas Broadband Council
Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission
Arkansas Commission for Coordination of Educational Efforts
Arkansas HIV-AIDS Minority Task Force
Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources Advisory Committee
Arkansas Revenue Department Building Commission
Arkansas Scenic Resources Preservation Coordinating Committee
Boiler Advisory Board
Commission on Information Age Communities
Distance Learning Coordinating Council
Home Health Care Service Agency Advisory Council
Long-Term Care Facility Advisory Board
Medications Administration Advisory Committee
Perfusionists Advisory Committee
Plantation Agriculture Museum Advisory Commission
Public Health Advisory Board
State Employment Security Advisory Council