Gov. Hutchinson asks legislature to ‘work together’ for history-making agenda

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 517 views 

The Arkansas State Capitol on Inaugural Day.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson began his second term in office on Tuesday (Jan. 15) by asking lawmakers to “make history” by working together with him to push through his most aggressive legislative agenda in his tenure as the state’s chief executive.

In his annual State of the State address held at the State Capitol, Hutchinson told all 100 state representatives and 35 senators gathered in the House chambers that history shows Arkansas’ future is its brightest when its leaders embrace “the new and we create growth.”

“Remember, the voters supported us and gave us approval for a growth agenda. We cannot let them down. Let’s not let this moment in history pass us by, but let us work together for success,” said Hutchinson. “Let’s work together and make history by reversing the trend of high taxes in Arkansas; let’s work together by transforming state government, … by raising teacher pay to historic levels; and by focusing on a growth agenda that allows Arkansans to prosper.”

For 26 minutes, that “working together” mantra was the central theme throughout Hutchinson’s upbeat and poignant speech. In setting the table for an aggressive agenda that will be highlighted by an omnibus government transformation plan, raises for teachers, a $111 million tax cut and finding a way to pay for highway construction, Hutchinson first outlined his major accomplishments during the 2015 and 2017 legislative sessions.

In speaking directly to the rare gathering of the entire General Assembly in one setting, Hutchinson first told lawmakers that they would face a “winter of hard work,” and then doubly reminded them that the purpose of their service as legislators was public service, not prestige or self-promotion.

“We serve the public. Not a party; not personal interests. We serve the public,” Hutchinson said with emphasis, but refrained from directly mentioning the swirl of speculation overhanging the Capitol amid varied federal probes investigating past corruption and bribery scandals that have entrapped seven lawmakers over the past 24 months.

Sprinkled in between his details of his robust legislation schedule, Hutchinson shared anecdotes about from his childhood in Gravette and first job as a shoeshine boy to vignettes about how the people of Arkansas have collectively lifted the state’s fortunes since the Great Depression by overcoming major challenges and difficulties.

In one highlight, Hutchinson noted how in the 1940s and 1950s, Arkansas lost some of its “best and brightest” when more than 150,000 left the state for better jobs on the East and West Coasts. Citing the recent in-migration trend that has boosted the population base to an all-time high, the popular Republican governor said Arkansas’ fortunes are now on the rise with better jobs, rising wages and a great quality of life.

“People are moving to Arkansas from California, Michigan and Illinois, and we are retaining our homegrown talent. Our population is now over 3 million people and growing every day,” he said. “The lesson is that people follow opportunity and pursue quality of life. We have it all.”

Hutchinson then spent several minutes highlighting many of his signature accomplishments in the 2015 and 2017 session. He touted major achievements from the transformation of the state’s Medicaid rolls through the Arkansas Works program and reforming the child welfare system to cutting taxes for the working poor and middle-class taxpayers and his computer code initiatives for all of the state’s high school students.

“When it comes to our goals for the future, to me it comes down to a growth agenda,” he said. “A plan for Arkansas that includes more and better paying jobs; increased attainment levels in higher education; a strong diversified economy; and competitive tax rates.”

Heading into the 92nd General Assembly, Hutchinson has already stated publicly that his agenda going into 2019 will be more aggressive and precedent-setting than his previous plans in 2015 and 2017. Instead of one or two key mandates, Hutchinson has called for four “cornerstone” issues with his state government transformation plan, a $110 million tax cut package, teacher raises, along with finding a way to pay for state highway construction.

In making the case for his third tax cut as governor, Hutchinson thanked lawmakers for the support of his proposal, known as the 2-4-5-9 plan. If lawmakers implement major recommendations developed by the Arkansas Tax Reform and Relief Task Force, that plan would simplify the state’s tax code and cut the top marginal tax rate eventually to 5.9%.

Although some lawmakers have already stated that the tax cut plan could be dramatically overhauled, Hutchinson said his proposal would make Arkansas competitive with surrounding states, attract new investments and talent, and continue strong job growth under his administration.

“For those who are concerned about the tax cuts and meeting the other needs of our state, please note that in the last four years, we have cut taxes carefully, and we have continued to invest in education, prisons, and even funding expanded Medicaid in this state,” said Hutchinson. “Today, we have a budget that allows for tax cuts while investing in the future. We have demonstrated we can get this done.

After Hutchinson’s speech in the House chamber, several lawmakers on both sides of the aisle gave him high marks for pushing a straight forward agenda that sets clear goals and the tasks ahead. Greg Leding, a Democratic senator from Fayetteville, even noted the “it can be done” phrase that governor repeated several times in his speech.

“There were not a lot of surprises in there. He highlighted his major accomplishments and laid out clearly his plan for this session,” said Sen. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville. “I think the big things are going to be the tax cuts, increasing teacher pay and highway funding, if you believe all of that can be done, but we do want to be smart about it.”

But Leding added: “But today, I am optimistic in working with the governor that this can be done.”

Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Springdale, said the governor’s agenda is aggressive, but she’s confident that it will be enacted in a responsible manner.

“I appreciate the Governor’s ambitious agenda. The governor laid out his priorities and the General Assembly will add theirs to that and system will work,” Lundstrum said. “The Governor and the Legislative branch are going in the right direction for Arkansas. We need tax cuts, we need to transform government making it more efficient and effective, and we have to match our priorities to our budget without over-spending.”

After Hutchinson’s speech, dozens of lawmakers, state officers, family members, policymakers, lobbyists and other visitors that came to hear the annual State of the State address nearly emptied the House and Senate chambers to hear the governor give his second inaugural address on the steps of the Capitol. Earlier, Hutchinson and other state officers were officially sworn in to office by Arkansas Chief Justice Dan Kemp following the November general election.