Gov. Asa Hutchinson has had a much more successful legislative session than headlines would suggest. The governor discussed his achievements and letdowns in a Talk Business & Politics interview that aired statewide on Sunday (April 18).
Hutchinson has signed new laws dealing with hate crimes, raising teacher pay, improving computer science requirements, and reforming law enforcement practices.
“In terms of my priorities, I’m very, very happy with what we’ve been able to accomplish in terms of raising teacher pay, our computer science initiative, our law enforcement efforts, but then also in terms of our budgets and tax cuts,” he said. “We’re working together very well and it’s going to be a very successful session on these points, and then you cap that off with passing what some people call a hate crimes bill, but that was one of my priorities. It was important for us to do that as a state, and I appreciate the leadership and the way they worked through that and got that passed. So I’m very pleased with those substantive issues coming out of this session.”
Hutchinson outlined moving money to long-term reserves, additional tax cuts, and money set aside for broadband expansion as other goals for this session. State legislators are poised to move money into long-term reserves before they adjourn, and there are several tax cut measures being debated in the final weeks of the session. The governor’s proposal to give a tax break to entice out-of-state residents to Arkansas never got off the ground, but a used car tax cut extension seems imminent and lawmakers passed a massive tax forgiveness bill for unemployment benefits.
Broadband funding is likely to come from new federal stimulus support or a possible infrastructure package that Congress has yet to vote on, and the governor believes Medicaid expansion funding will eventually get the three-fourths vote needed to pass.
While his policy goals are tangible, Hutchinson has spent a major portion of the session dealing with socially and culturally divisive bills ranging from transgender restrictions, abortion, guns, education, and religious freedoms.
“I think probably the disappointment would simply be in that we were not able to stay away from so many controversial bills that I think were probably unnecessary. But I don’t want to dwell on the negative here. I think it has been a good session. If I look at going back, what could we have done better? I think let’s let the dust settle before we actually determine that.”
Could he have done anything differently to stem the tide of controversial bills that have been the hallmark of this session?
“I don’t think there’s anything I could have done. The legislature was speaking their heart and what they believed was important. I think the fact that this is a very long session generated more bills, and some of those are controversial bills, so I think that is a factor in it. But these bills are passing with super majority votes,” he said.
Republicans control 27 of 35 seats in the State Senate and 78 of 100 seats in the Arkansas House.
“This is a conservative state. People and legislators and the public are frustrated with what they see come out of Washington. They just want to push back, and so the legislature is trying to push back. I don’t know that there’s anything that could be done to stop that other than dialogue. These bills come through quickly, and sometimes whenever it sits on my desk awhile, it’s a reminder we need to study these bills very carefully and that they can go too far,” he added.
Hutchinson said he has constitutional questions about a gun freedom bill on his desk, and he has signed other questionable bills knowing they may be challenged in the courts.
Gov. Hutchinson said one of the big worries for many political observers heading into the 2021 session would center on executive and legislative relationships. Despite state lawmakers complaining about executive branch heavy-handedness due to the pandemic emergency, Hutchinson said he’s been pleased with the balance of power during the session.
“Everybody wondered about the relationship with the leadership and between the executive and legislative branch. Overall, it’s been very, very good, and I applaud Senator [Jimmy] Hickey and Speaker [Matthew] Shepherd that they’ve been good partners through this. There’s been a great line of communication,” he said.
During the current session, lawmakers have passed a law requiring the governor to consult with legislative leaders to maintain emergency powers under the pandemic; have attempted to move some executive powers under legislative authority; and are considering a constitutional amendment referral to allow the General Assembly to call itself into a special session – constitutionally, a power reserved for the governor.
“While I disagree with some of the efforts to diminish the executive branch, to lift up the legislative branch, while we have those disagreements, overall, we’ve worked together in a good partnership,” he said. “Now, I hope that it does not go to the ballot for a vote on a referred constitutional amendment that would allow the legislature to call themselves into session. Historically, we’ve had a part-time legislature that meets once every two years in regular session. This would convert it into really a full-time legislature.”
“Their perception is that the executive branch is very powerful and the legislative branch is not strong enough, and they want to strengthen that. Well, I think you’ve got to step back a little bit and understand that under our constitution, the governor has a lot of respect, but structurally the legislature has a lot of power, particularly with the purse strings,” he added.
Hutchinson did say he believes the Arkansas governor needs a stronger veto power. This session, he has vetoed two bills. One was sustained and one was overridden. The legislature can overturn a governor’s veto with a majority of votes in each chamber.
“I’ll be finished in another two years, but if you look down the road for governors, they need to have a more meaningful veto power in this state. I think the people of Arkansas would support that. But a simple majority to override a veto really weakens the effectiveness of that veto,” he said.
Hutchinson also discussed the future of Medicaid expansion, the COVID-19 pandemic, his future political plans, and the race between Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Leslie Rutledge to succeed him. Watch the full interview in the video below.