Governor addresses special session, budget shortfall; says independent execution investigation unwarranted

by Roby Brock (roby@talkbusiness.net) 253 views 

Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Friday (April 29) said he will limit next week’s special session primarily to items involving health care and he announced plans to cut the fiscal year budget by $70 million, while shoring up a long-term contingency fund. He also said that concerns over the most recent state execution, in which inmate Kenneth Williams “convulsed,” will be investigated by the Arkansas Department of Corrections, but no independent investigation is warranted.

“I see no reason for any investigation other than the routine review that is done after every execution,” Hutchinson said.

The routine investigation he cited involves talking to Arkansas Department of Corrections staff, witnesses of the executions, and reviewing all documentation of the event. No final written report will be compiled.

On the special session call, Hutchinson told reporters in a media availability at the state capitol there would be five primary areas on the special session call for the legislative gathering that will start on Monday after lawmakers officially “sine die” or adjourn from their regular session. The special session is expected to conclude on Wednesday, May 3.

The five areas include:
• Approving changes to Arkansas Works based on federal waivers for which the state is expected to receive approval;
• More legislative oversight of the Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace, whose fate rests on changes to health insurance at the federal level;
• Technical corrections to several laws passed dealing with medical marijuana;
• Technical corrections to statutes passed related to ethics legislation; and
• Long-term reserve funding to shore up the state’s bond ratings and for safeguard purposes.

Hutchinson said he would be downwardly revising his revenue forecast in the current fiscal year by $70 million due to lagging state revenue collections. Nearly 10 months into the state’s current fiscal year, tax collections have not met forecast levels.

“Arkansas’ economy is on track and has momentum,” he said citing low unemployment and healthy income tax collections. “This was a miss on revenue, not a miss on spending,” he said.

Hutchinson said the primary driver for the budget shortfall was due to refunds that relate to last year’s income tax cuts that the governor passed as part of his signature legislation during the 2015 session. The $70 million in cuts will be in Category B funding, which the governor said would not affect state services or result in government job cuts.

“There is more money in citizens’ pockets this year that they will be able to spend in the economy. That’s the objective of tax cuts,” Hutchinson said, justifying the tax cuts’ positive impact on the economy.

In the special session, the governor will ask legislators to move $105 million from a Health Century Trust Fund balance – part of money that has accumulated from tobacco settlement funds – to a long-term reserve fund that can be used in emergencies and to shore up the state’s bond ratings.

EXECUTION INVESTIGATION
Most of the questions during the 40-minute press availability on Friday centered on Thursday night’s execution of death row inmate Kenneth Williams.

On Thursday night, the state conducted its fourth and final execution by lethal injection of eight Death Row inmates who were slated to die. Only four executions occurred as legal wranglings stalled the other four planned executions during the past two weeks. They are the first executions the state has carried out since 2005.

Kenneth Williams, who killed four different people, was executed late Thursday night and pronounced dead at 11:05 p.m. after hours of delay. During his execution, witnesses said that he “convulsed, shook and gasped” for 10-20 seconds shortly after the first drug, midazolam, was administered. Attorneys for Williams and opponents of the death penalty have called for an investigation into the medical episode.

“The accounts of the execution of Mr. Williams tonight [Thursday] are horrifying,” said Shawn Nolan, a federal public defender. “… reports from the execution witnesses indicate that Mr. Williams suffered during this execution.”

“What’s important right now is that all the information about tonight’s execution must be meticulously documented and preserved so that we can discover exactly what happened in the execution chamber,” Nolan added.

The governor said he saw no need for an independent investigation into the matter. He planned to conduct a standard review of the execution process, which includes meeting with prison officials and witnesses.

“When you look back at the four executions, they were all done in accordance with protocols established by DOC,” he said. “I’ve not seen any indication of pain.”

The governor said he would prefer to keep the current lethal injection process for executions in place despite the difficulty in obtaining the three drugs used in the execution cocktail.

“We’ll have to look at options down the road,” he said in response to where the state may obtain future drugs. He said he did not see the state manufacturing its own drugs – as some states have discussed – but he said the state may look for ways to compound the drug as an option.

While lawyers and witnesses called into question parts of the prison officials’ accounts, the governor said, “I’ve been a lawyer for a long time. If you have 5 witnesses, you’re going to have 5 different views.”

He said he will review all of the facts as part of the routine review process, but he does not expect a written report to be compiled or a call for an independent investigation to be started.

“The review is a meeting with the participants,” he said. “I do not expect a written report and I have not asked for that.”

When pressed for an independent investigation after the routine review, Hutchinson said, “I think it’s totally unjustified.”

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