Gov. Hutchinson to attend Trump inauguration, offers upbeat assessment of upcoming legislative session

by Wesley Brown ( 50 views 

Gov. Asa Hutchinson will travel to Washington, D.C. on Jan. 20 to attend the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump and also plans to meet with the new administration to discuss the nation’s healthcare policy.

Hutchinson also told reporters during Wednesday’s (Jan. 4) pre-legislation session media briefing sponsored by the Associated Press that he was looking forward to 91st General Assembly that begins on Jan. 9. He reiterated plans to push a $50.5 million tax cut measure and critiqued potential legislation on social issues that could take the session off track.

In response to questions about putting off tax cuts because of weakening state revenues and potential budget challenges because of potential changes to the Affordable Care Act and the nation’s Medicaid program under the incoming GOP president, Hutchinson was emphatic about support of the measure.

“I don’t want to see it put off,” Hutchinson. “In my view, it is a minimum and conservative approach, and we ought to do it.”

Hutchinson first outlined his tax cut proposal in early December, saying he would focus on reducing the tax burden for the bulk of the state’s lowest wage earners making less than $21,000 a year. The popular Republican governor reiterated his hopes to continue the effort he began in 2015 to reduce the tax rate for wage earners in all income tax brackets, along with a well-liked proposal to exempt all retirement benefits for the state’s retirement military from being taxed.

To pay for the tax cut to military veterans, the governor’s proposal would remove the exclusion from income on unemployment benefits, which he said would create $3.1 million in additional generation revenue. The plan also calls for applying the sales tax on the full cost of manufactured housing and candy and soft drinks, which would raise an extra $2.4 million and $13.8 million, respectively.

Hutchinson said extending tax cuts to lower wage earners is the second part of his overall strategy, and the next step would be to provide tax relief for the state’s wealthiest citizens before he leaves office.

“After all, they are the job generators for our state,” he told reporters.

In his hour-long back-and-forth with 15 reporters, Hutchinson also provided his take on a number of fiscal and legislative issues likely to come up during the general session, ranging from medical marijuana and economic development to potential budget debate over higher education, highway and prison funding.

Hutchinson also discussed his stance on separating the days honoring civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King and Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee. In the 2015 session, the governor backed unsuccessful efforts to separate the holidays in the 2015 session, but said he again support such legislative this year even though some conservative lawmakers in his own party will go against him.

“It is just the right thing to do … because Martin Luther King deserves the holiday to himself,” Hutchinson said. “(Lee) was on the wrong side of history.”

When questioned about the possibility of a so-called “bathroom bill” being introduced during the session, Hutchinson said he has advised lawmakers during the session to remain focused on issues that are important to the state of Arkansas. North Carolina lawmakers passed a bill that stipulated that transgender students must use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their birth certificates. The Obama administration instructed state educators to allow equal access for transgender students based on their preferred gender identity – a directive that Hutchinson has said in the past should be ignored.

“I still don’t see a need for such legislation,” the governor said.

Earlier in the day, Gov. Hutchinson also announced a regional higher education alliance between National Park College, College of the Ouachitas and Henderson State University in response to the governor’s Closing the Gap 2020 initiative master plan for higher education.

Officials from National Park College (NPC), College of the Ouachitas (COTO), and Henderson State University said they formed the Southern Arkansas Regional Alliance collaborative to streamline higher education and workforce development initiatives in Clark, Garland, and Hot Spring counties that will prioritize student success, degree attainment and workforce development ahead of tradition and turf.

“Our partnership will create greater opportunities for the students in our region. We will establish more seamless degree options and increase student degree attainment throughout south Arkansas as we simplify transfer pathways between our institutions,” said Henderson State President Dr. Glen Jones. “We look forward to serving as a catalyst for economic development in south Arkansas as we work with leaders and communities to promote stronger cooperation, industry engagement and branding throughout our region.”

National Park College NPC), a two-year college, was established in 1973 and is located in Hot Springs. The College enrolls nearly 5,000 credit and non-credit students per semester. College of the Ouachitas in Malvern, provides educational opportunities at the freshman and sophomore level in associate degree, technical certificate, and certificate of proficiency programs.

NPC President Dr. John Hogan said the alliance between the three schools will now allow students from the two-year institutions to more easily transfer their credits to Henderson State and eliminate unnecessary paperwork.

“Our main goal is to increase degree completions for our service areas by compressing time to degree and eliminating wasted coursework which will result in keeping quality graduates in the area. NPC has prioritized expansion of transfer agreements for Garland County students. We believe this alliance will help strengthen our efforts in that area, Hogan said.

Jones also said employers in the region have asked Henderson State and other higher education officials to better prepare students to enter the workforce and fill local jobs in the three-county area. He said the alliance is working with Sun Paper Industry of China, which is expected to complete pre-engineering and environmental permitting for a $1.3 billion paper mill, mega-project in Clark County in the first quarter of this year.