Gov. Asa Hutchinson told reporters on Monday (March 25) that he does not a support a controversial proposal approved by the Arkansas Senate last week that will transfer oversight of liquid animal waste from the state Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) to the state Natural Resources Commission by 2021.
During an hourlong pen-and-pad media availability at his State Capitol office, Hutchinson said his staff had over “200 contacts” opposing SB 550 by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, that was approved last week by the Senate by a vote of 25-5 following lively debate on the chamber floor.
“I do believe it is not the right time for it,” said Hutchinson, noting that he would prefer that the sponsor pull down the bill as his administration seeks to push through his 2,500-page transformation package that would create a new Department of Energy and Environment.
“I know that the motivation behind the sponsors is that this will lead to some efficiencies,” said the governor. “But I look at it from the standpoint of that transformation is important and right in the middle of (legislation) is not the time for making dramatic changes in our rule-making process for large-scale animal feeding operations.”
Later in the press conference, during a question-and-answer period with reporters, Hutchinson said part of his reasoning for requesting SB 550 be deferred was a letter sent to ADEQ Director Becky Keogh from the Anne Idsal, regional administrator at the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s office in Dallas.
In that letter, Idsal said if SB 550 were adopted into state law, the EPA would review the legislation to see if the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission would possess adequate authority to issue permits in compliance with the requirements of the Clean Water Act.
“Based on our initial review, SB 550 merits further evaluation to determine its effect on (EPA’s) National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program permitting and enforcement in (Arkansas) and to consider potential issues related to transferring authorities to another department in the state,” Idsal wrote in the March 20 communication to Keogh.
Under EPA rules, states are required to keep the EPA informed of major program revisions to clean air and water rules, including transfers of state oversight from one state agency to another. If revisions are made, those plans must be submitted to EPA for approval along with other supporting documents, including a modified program description and a statement from the state attorney general.
“Specifically, SB 550 may implicate federal requirements addressing discharges from concentrated animal feeding operations into waters of the U.S., including permitting and public notice requirements, as well as requirements for unpermitted operations,” said the EPA administrator.
Hutchinson said after receiving that letter from the EPA, there was a concern in the administration that if the state’s animal waste program was removed from ADEQ, then the Trump administration would come in and take it over.
“For a number of reasons, I would urge the legislature to postpone consideration of this,” said Hutchinson. “The EPA indicated that a change would raise questions and may jeopardize our independence and authority to regulate these large-scale animal feeding operations.”
During the Senate debate on SB 550 on March 19, Sen. Will Bond, D-Little Rock, told Stubblefield that Arkansas needs to protect its pristine rivers, streams and water sources through more stringent environmental rules, not weaker ones. “Let’s keep the state the Natural State,” said the Little Rock senator.
Stubblefield told Talk Business & Politics last week that he had seen a copy of the EPA letter to state environmental officials but would not comment on if he plans to pull down his bill. SB 550 now sits in the House Agriculture, Forestry, and Economic Development Committee with no scheduled date for a hearing.
Stubblefield said after the Senate convened on Monday that he had talked with the governor concerning SB 550. He said he proposed amending the bill to include a provision that if the state Natural Resources Commission rules conflict with current ADEQ regulations, then his legislation would be “null and void.”
Hutchinson also said he was further concerned by the fact that the EPA letter came under the watch of the Trump administration, which has repealed and loosened review of water and clean air regulations implemented by the previous administration.
“This is not the administration of President (Barack) Obama. This is the administration of President (Donald) Trump,” he said. “President Trump’s EPA is the one that sent that letter.”
APPROVAL ON TRANSFORMATION BILL EXPECTED BY APRIL 1
Concerning his omnibus transformation proposal to streamline state government from 42 varied state agencies to 15 cabinet-level ones, Hutchinson said he hopes the legislature can push the bill out of the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee by April Fool’s Day after the legislature completes hearings on the gaggle of 16 bills.
“They are working early, they are working late, and they are holding hearings and meetings on the transformation bill and I expect to be out of committee by April 1,” said Hutchinson. “If it is out of committee by (then), that gives time to finish the work in the Senate, and if there is any amendment, then it has to go back to the House for concurrence. So, we are in good shape on time.”
In one of his rare appearances before a legislative panel during the 2019 session, Hutchinson in late February outlined the compelling reasons why he chose to move forward with the first comprehensive transformation effort since former Gov. Dale Bumpers was in office in 1971. They include estimated savings and efficiencies of more than $15 million, improved delivery of government services, and improved managerial oversight, he said.
The popular Republican governor also tempered his prediction two weeks ago during a speech at the Little Rock Political Animals Club that he would like to see the legislature take up the budget-balancing Revenue Stabilization Act soon in hopes of ending the 2019 session by early April.
“I actually get in trouble because the legislature thinks that I just want to get my bills passed and then we will go home afterwards and they have their own agendas,” Hutchinson said jokingly. “So, I want to be sensitive to them and we obviously want to have full consideration of the ideas that are out there. But I do think that we’re getting to the point that most of the major bills are being considered and the committees are working hard.”
Before the session, Hutchinson outlined his $5.75 billion budget for the 92nd General Assembly for the upcoming fiscal year 2020 that begins on July 1, 2019. That balanced budget request, which must be approved by the legislature, is 2.3%, or $125 million, above the fiscal 2019 budget of $5.6 billion, which ends June 30, 2019.