While the legislative session isn’t over yet, Gov. Asa Hutchinson is already focused on what will happen after the 92nd General Assembly dismisses.
Appearing on this week’s edition of Talk Business & Politics, Hutchinson is preparing for the implementation of his transformation plan and the campaign for a highway package. He also suggests his time in politics won’t end after his second term as governor.
Hutchinson’s effort to streamline state government from 42 to 15 cabinet level reports still must clear the State Senate. Hutchinson thinks his plan will pass that chamber and he’s prepared to put a transition team in place to execute the transition.
“There will be a transition team that will be set up to help guide the cabinet secretaries that will be named,” he said. “This sets the pattern for the 15 different agencies, and the first thing you’ve got to do is put the personnel in place, and then you got to have, where can you concentrate on areas of efficiencies, better management of it… The transformation doesn’t happen on day one. It is a process.”
Hutchinson said that part of that process will be naming new cabinet secretaries, which might not correlate directly to current agency directors.
“These are new secretarial positions and we will look at it all afresh. We’ve been very careful not to get personalities behind this. I’ve got an incredible cabinet right now. They’ve all done great jobs, and so there’ll be some competition for it, but that’s after we get the legislation passed,” he said.
On his $300 million highway plan, which still requires voter approval of a permanent half-cent sales tax that could raise $205 million, Hutchinson said he’s prepared to campaign for its passage. He also said that he’s prepared to scale back the highway plan if voters don’t approve the half-cent sales tax.
“You have to work with what the voters said, and if they decline to extend that half cent then you have a $95 million plan that we just passed as supplemented by the previous, basically $50 million plan that is still in existence. So we’ve still done a great deal for roads,” said Hutchinson. “But the half cent extension is obviously a critical link of the entire package. I’ll be out there supporting it, campaigning for it. With the voters understanding the need of highways, we’re optimistic that that will be extended.”
TAXES AND THE GOP
This past week, Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, introduced a bipartisan, bicameral bill to raise and expand taxes on tobacco products and provide tax relief for lower income Arkansans through an earned income tax credit (EITC) and income tax breaks. The bill purports to raise $100 million in new taxes and eliminate close to $100 million taxes – essentially revenue neutral.
Hutchinson is not opposed to the measure, but he wants to see if revisions alter the bill before indicating if he’ll sign or veto a proposal that makes it to his desk.
“That’s what you’ve got to be careful with. You know, if this bill gets to my desk will I sign it? Well, let’s see what it looks like when it gets to my desk… If it is revenue neutral then that addresses my concern there, but let’s see what happens as it goes through the process.
The governor said he’s not opposed to the increase in taxes on the tobacco and tobacco-related products.
“I’m not inherently, in fact I support, I’ve indicated my support for putting a tax on vapor products, that’s important to discourage use. It equalizes it with other tobacco products, so I support that, the increase in the tobacco itself. I’m open to the amount and how that sets us in consideration with the other states is relevant debate,” he said.
Having already signed higher gas taxes into law and with the prospect of tobacco tax hikes looming, Hutchinson argued that Republicans are still lowering taxes for regular Arkansans when you look at the scope of overall tax reform.
“It is a curve, and that’s why I’m measuring as we go through this session, and what is the ultimate burden we’re placing on our taxpayers? Is it growing or is it less, and under my leadership I want it to be less,” Hutchinson said.
He noted $150 million in income tax relief provided in previous sessions as well as the reduction in the grocery tax, which was started under Gov. Mike Beebe. Hutchinson said his administration should be commended for furthering property tax relief, too.
“You’re looking at tax reductions throughout this session. Sure, we had the $95 million package that raised the gas tax three cents per gallon. That is, and what I said from the beginning, that’s the maximum that I would support. And you balance that with all the other tax cuts we have. These are net tax reductions we’re giving in relief to the people of Arkansas,” he said.
Hutchinson discussed the growing Democratic field for President in 2020 and said he felt defeating President Donald Trump in a GOP primary would be tough for any contenders. Former GOP governors William Weld and Larry Hogan are mulling challenges to Trump.
“That’s a treacherous path because you look at what’s been accomplished in the Trump administration and it’s what the base supports of the Republican Party, which are tax cuts and regulatory relief to returning more authority to the states,” he said.
Trump’s trade policies are a question mark, Hutchinson admitted, but he said if the President runs on his record – not his personality – he will have a more compelling case.
Might we see Hutchinson dip his toe into exploratory waters in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina?
“Only if I go to speak about computer coding and what we’ve done in Arkansas,” he said.
Hutchinson did say, however, that he might not hang up his political hat after he completes his term as governor and is term-limited. When asked if he would be through with politics after his term as governor, Hutchinson replied, “Wouldn’t count me out.”
You can watch Gov. Hutchinson’s full interview in the video below.