Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the U.S. must help China combat the coronavirus outbreak and said the risks it represents show why the state must be prepared for an economic downturn.
The disease started in China and has killed almost 500 people worldwide as of Feb. 4. Both the United States federal government and the World Health Organization have declared a public health emergency. Travel is being restricted from China into the United States and other countries.
“It is extraordinary to think that right now we are isolating the second largest economy in the world,” Hutchinson told the Benton Area Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday (Feb. 4).
“It’s not just our competitor out there that might be harmed economically, but the global economy could be harmed as well because we are interconnected,” he said. “And so the United States needs to lean forward to work with them to make sure that they have the resources to contain it, to come up with the medicines that’s needed for that virus.”
Hutchinson said the type of economic risk the disease represents shows why the state needs a rainy day fund and must continue to recruit industry.
Hutchinson returned to those themes later in his address, saying the state’s long-term reserve fund now has $150 million in its coffers thanks in part to money set aside with help from a $140 million surplus this year.
Hutchinson said he has a “conservative approach to economic growth” based on lower taxes, less regulation and encouraging private sector risk-taking.
“But it’s also important to remember our neighbors, those who are struggling: our foster children, those coming out of prison seeking a second chance, and the single parent making low wages and struggling to make ends meet,” he said. “Or it could be that first generation immigrant who’s looking for new opportunities in a new land. Perhaps this is conservatism with a caring perspective on life, where you care about your neighbors.”
Hutchinson spoke at noon, the day after the Iowa caucus had been completed but hours before the Democratic Party released any results. Speaking about that debacle at the beginning of the speech, he said, “Yes, we do count votes better in Arkansas than they do in Iowa.”
Hutchinson said Saline County, where Benton is located, is the fastest growing of the six Central Arkansas counties, with an expected 2020 census growth of 13.1% over the 2010 census and a 2.6% unemployment rate.
He congratulated the county for its voter-approved Saline County Career and Technical Center, where 500 students from all the county schools will take classes with help from the Malvern-based ASU Three Rivers two-year college. He called the center “the model that I want in the state of Arkansas” because it’s a regional workforce center serving multiple high schools and offering college credit while partnering with industry to provide workforce skills.
Hutchinson said when he became governor, 52 high schools did not have access to a career learning center, and now that number has been reduced to two. He said students need to be able to develop workforce skills and also go to college if they choose.
Hutchinson asked attendees to support Issue 1 on the November ballot. The amendment referred to voters by legislators would permanently extend the half-cent sales tax currently funding the Connecting Arkansas Program.
If approved, the amendment would provide $205 million in funding for highways annually. If it fails, cities and counties would lose their share currently coming from the tax. That would equal $1.1 million in revenues going to Saline County and $715,000 going to Benton, the governor said.