Top political stories of 2015 include Asa’s imprint, healthcare, and Cotton’s rise

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 185 views 

The editors of Talk Business & Politics have compiled our top statewide stories of the year in politics.

Asa Hutchinson Puts Stamp on State Government
Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) was sworn in as the state’s 46th governor in January 2015 and spent his first year in office replacing agency heads, instituting new state policies and pushing his legislative agenda. Measured by his popularity in the polls – a near 60% approval rating – Hutchinson received high marks for his leadership, although there are still major decisions to be made on healthcare, highways, education and prisons.

Senator Tom Cotton’s Emergence on National Scene
U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., was part of the tidal wave of Republicanism that swept Arkansas in 2014. He wasted little time making a splash on the national scene in 2015. Cotton quickly coalesced Republican Senate support for a high-profile letter to oppose U.S. nuclear negotiations with Iran. Love him or hate him, through use of traditional and new media, Cotton became a go-to voice on foreign affairs with the national press corps.

Healthcare Task Force
After Gov. Hutchinson smoothed passage of the private option in the 2015 legislative session, he set up a task force to tackle a long-term solution to the politically volatile program. The legislative group met off-and-on all year to come up with several recommendations including asking the governor to seek federal waivers, adding work requirement components to Medicaid expansion programs, and finding $835 million in Medicaid savings over the next five years. In 2016, the rubber will meet the road on policy changes for health care – expect a special session by mid-year to lay the foundation for the future.

Moving Political Primaries
The Arkansas legislature moved the state’s political primaries from late May to March 1 in an effort to join the “SEC primary” along with several other Southern states. The result may benefit Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton and boost the fading hopes of GOP candidate Mike Huckabee.

Political Matchups Emerge
While the primary season moved up, the lack of marquee races in 2016 will pale in comparison to 2014. There will be a U.S. Senate race – a GOP primary competition and general election opponent for U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark. – but the next most exciting race may be for chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. Democrats failed to field candidates in three of the Congressional races for next year. The potential for a crowded ballot with citizen initiatives or constitutional amendment changes could be the best bet to liven up politics next year.

RFRA and Local Ordinances
After a national debate over a Religious Freedom Restoration Act simmered in Indiana and Arkansas, state lawmakers found a King Solomon solution in many people’s eyes. The debate centered on allowing business owners to not serve citizens with whom they disagreed with on moral issues, such as homosexuality. The state law created a series of conditions for trying such cases, but it is yet to be tested. In response, several cities across Arkansas passed local ordinances to prohibit businesses from discriminating against citizens despite religious beliefs. The courts will decide the issue in years to come.

Rep. Justin Harris Rehoming Controversy
State Rep. Justin Harris, R-West Fork, was the political story of the legislative session until the RFRA debate usurped his case. Harris and his wife, who adopted young daughters and transferred them to another family where a father abused them, saw his colleagues pass a state law to prevent “rehoming,” which apparently was not illegal. The high-profile case, which was the result of enterprise reporting by the Arkansas Times, raised a number of concerns regarding state policy on adoptions.

Party Switchers Come to the GOP
For several weeks, the Arkansas GOP gained more momentum as a flurry of announcements were made by Democrats switching allegiance to the Republican party. Rep. Mike Holcomb of Pine Bluff was probably the most high-profile switch. Several county officials and a few former Democratic candidates for legislative office made up the rest of the party switching party.

The Governor on a Mission
Gov. Hutchinson was on a mission for new jobs in 2015 – a trade mission. The governor made a number of high-profile visits to places ranging from Silicon Valley to Europe, China and Cuba. Hutchinson scored success in China, announcing a $1.2 billion paper mill project for South Arkansas. In Europe, he pursued more aerospace and steel manufacturing businesses. And Silicon Valley was the backdrop for his efforts to open doors with a number of tech firms interested in his high-profile computer coding school initiative. Cuba may have to wait for more U.S. diplomacy, but it holds major potential for the state’s rice and poultry industries.