The COVID-19 pandemic consumed much of Arkansas’ news – political and business – during 2020, but there was an election, protests for police reform and an ongoing shift in the state’s political environment. Following are the top five political stories as viewed by Talk Business & Politics.
1. The politics of COVID-19
Just as there are many ways COVID-19 spreads, there were many opinions as to appropriate political responses to the pandemic, especially when involving personal behavior rules, emergency health orders issued by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and reopening schools.
Gov. Hutchinson first issued a public health emergency order in early March. He closed schools, issued a directive on gatherings that essentially closed restaurants and gyms, and closed barber shops, hair salons, tattoo studios and other similar in-person services. He and the Arkansas Department of Health, often citing federal guidelines, would eventually relax several of the initial provisions which allowed many businesses to partially or fully reopen.
Gov. Hutchinson for months resisted issuing a statewide mask mandate, but eventually the rise in COVID cases forced him to act. On July 16, he issued a statewide mandate requiring the use of a face mask, citing the rising number of cases and input from healthcare workers, legislators and others who said it was necessary to address the spread of COVID-19. Some county sheriffs said they would not enforce the mandate.
“I have listened to doctors and nurses who are on the front line in this fight against COVID-19, and they ask the public to do more,” Gov. Hutchinson said at the time.
The decision by Gov. Hutchinson to open schools and allow the return of high school sports was not without resistance. Jonesboro Public Schools Superintendent Kim Wilbanks alleged during an Aug. 6 Zoom meeting with the Jonesboro Kiwanis Club that decisions to open schools and play football were based on economic reasons. Wilbanks, recipient of the Milken Educator Award and 2014 Arkansas Superintendent of the Year, said: “I’m sure two years from now, we’re going to look back and say, ‘what fools we were.’”
Stacey James McAdoo, the 2019 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, also accused the governor of making economic decisions rather than considering the health of students, teachers and others. Arkansas Education Association President Carol Fleming told state lawmakers in early August that schools should open the 2020-2021 school year with virtual learning only.
Gov. Hutchinson would also face attempts by legislators from his own party to limit his emergency powers authority. A lawsuit, spearheaded by Rep. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, and signed by almost 20 other legislators, says 43 directives issued by the ADH should be invalidated because the executive branch overstepped its emergency powers authority and did not consult with the legislative branch.
“He’s told us to not just sit on the bench, but go sit in the stands and just watch. He’s really created a branch of government outside of government with these commissions and committees that are making decisions from schools to athletics,” Sullivan said.
Hutchinson said his decisions have required “urgent action” and that seven of the legislators who have signaled support for the lawsuit were on the Legislative Council, which he contends approved the rules under which he and the ADH are operating.
“When people are dying, you don’t need delay. You need quick action,” said Gov. Hutchinson. “There is a national emergency and 50 states have declared an emergency. President Trump has declared a national emergency.”
The lawsuit was unsuccessful, but the politics of COVID-19 are likely to continue well into 2021. For example, Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, the incoming Senate pro tempore, has expressed an interest in reviewing the scope of Gov. Hutchinson’s ability to act under emergency powers laws. The regular session of the 93rd General Assembly is set to begin Jan. 11.
2. Police reform protests, task force
When George Floyd was killed in May, it led to an eruption of protests across the country and in Arkansas concerning police reforms. Gov. Asa Hutchinson in early June appointed the Task Force to Address Law Enforcement in Arkansas to find public policy changes to improve police practices in the state.
The Task Force delivered a lengthy report on Dec. 17. Among the recommendations were limiting the number of part-time versus full-time officers, increasing pay to attract more qualified officers, doubling bias training, and other suggestions. The proposals include 27 recommendations. Hutchinson said he’s been in preliminary discussions about the recommendations in the report with key members of the Arkansas Legislature.
“I created the law-enforcement task force in the midst of the civil unrest and violence that arose across the country after the death of George Floyd,” Gov. Hutchinson said. “That national crisis led us to assess the state of law enforcement in Arkansas. We want to ensure that we are providing our agencies with the equipment, guidance and training, support, and compensation that will allow them to perform their jobs at the highest level. The law-enforcement officers, elected officials, and community activists on the task force surveyed a broad base of citizens and produced a report that is filled with substantive proposals.”
Fred Weatherspoon, deputy director of the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy, who chaired the committee said some of the conversations were animated and at times heated, but it was good dialogue that produced a solid result.
Hutchinson and several of the task force members, including Craighead County Sheriff Marty Boyd, wanted officers statewide to know the reform ideas are not an attack on them, but rather ways to improve safety for police and citizens during interactions.
“No one wants a bad police officer off the streets more than a good one,” Boyd said.
3. Arkansas becomes redder
While the country may be closely divided between red and blue states, there is no such divide in Arkansas. November general election results showed a state that moved more definitively in the Republican camp.
All four Arkansas members of the U.S. House of Representatives are Republicans and were re-elected, with U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, running unopposed in the First Congressional district that was once a Democrat stronghold. The only tight House race was in the Second District between U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., and Sen. Joyce Elliot, D-Little Rock. Despite tight polling, Hill would win the race with just over 55% of the vote. U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., was overwhelmingly re-elected and faced only a Libertarian candidate.
President Donald Trump easily carried Arkansas with 62.4% of the vote, eclipsing his 60.5% margin in 2016.
Perhaps the biggest sign of Republican dominance in the state was in the outcome of state legislative races. Just 10 years ago, the Arkansas House and the Arkansas Senate were controlled by Democrats, and had been for more than a century. Beginning in January, the Arkansas House will go from 24 Democrats and 76 Republicans to 22 Democrats and 78 Republicans in the 93rd General Assembly. The Senate will go from 9 Democrats and 26 Republicans to 7 Democrats and 28 Republicans.
4. The 2022 gubernatorial race
Posturing for the 2022 election to Arkansas’ top elected office began well before the 2020 election cycle was complete. Arkansas Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin and Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge have announced as Republican candidates for governor.
Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson is term-limited and cannot seek re-election.
Griffin, who also served in the U.S. House of Representatives for Arkansas’ Second Congressional District, was the first to announce for the top job. Rutledge, the first Republican and the first female elected as Arkansas Attorney General, announced July 1, 2020. Other rumored GOP candidates are Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, who recently served as Senate president, and former Arkansas House Speaker Davy Carter.
The most high-profile rumored candidate is Sarah Huckabee Sanders, daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former White House Press Secretary for President Donald Trump. Sanders, only the third woman to hold the press job in the White House, stepped down from the post at the end of July 2019. In September, she published her book “Speaking for Myself,” detailing her life – private and public – while working in the White House. Sanders is considered by many political watchers as the frontrunner if she were to enter the race.
No Democrats have yet expressed an interest in a gubernatorial bid.
5. Voters approve highway tax, term limits; reject amendment revision
Arkansas voters in November approved a permanent half-cent sales tax to fund highways and local roads and supported a change to state legislative term limits. But they rejected a proposed amendment that would make it harder to amend the state’s Constitution.
The highway tax is estimated to provide $205 million annually for state highways and $87 million split between cities and counties. It will not apply to groceries. Gov. Asa Hutchinson made highway funding one of his main issues during his 2018 re-election campaign and campaigned for Issue 1.
Voters also approved Issue 2, which changes the state’s legislative term limits. With its passage, state lawmakers are limited to 12 consecutive years in any combination of service in the House and Senate but may return to the Legislature after four years out of office. If they serve less than 12 years, they may return after any break.
Lawmakers are now limited to 16 years serving in any combination in the House and Senate, though some senators are eligible for more years if they are serving when district lines change after the U.S. census. They cannot return to office once they reach their limit.
Voters rejected a proposed constitutional amendment, Issue 3, which would make it harder to amend the state’s Constitution and for Arkansas citizens to pass initiated acts and referenda. Issue 3 would, among other provisions, increase from 15 to 45 the number of counties where voter signatures must be collected, eliminate the “cure period” that allows citizen groups to collect more signatures if too many are disqualified by the secretary of state, and require citizen groups to submit the required number of signatures by Jan. 15 of the election year instead of July.