Gov. Asa Hutchinson and State Senators Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, and Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, participated in a KATV-Talk Business & Politics town hall in late May to discuss recent session business and a future legislative meeting later this year.
When lawmakers reconvene this fall, Gov. Hutchinson said he expects the tax cut focus to center on lowering the top income tax rate.
“This past session of the legislature, we did those tax cuts for small business. We had some other ones that were important, but we didn’t do the big tax cut for individuals across the board,” he said. “We thought we’d be in a better position in September to know exactly where we are economically, we’ll have more in our reserve fund at that time so we’ll know more… There’s a consensus among myself and the leadership and most of the members of General Assembly that that’s the time to do it and that we ought to lower that individual rate down again from 5.9%. I hope that we can get down to a 5.7% or even lower as we look into September.”
As for those who want to eliminate the income tax altogether, including GOP gubernatorial candidates AG Leslie Rutledge and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Hutchinson said an incremental approach would be more stable and avoid raising other taxes to offset government services that might be cut. No Democrats have advocated for eliminating the state income tax altogether.
“It’s hard to imagine doing that [eliminating income tax] in the short-term without raising sales taxes or raising property taxes, and I’ve never wanted to do that. If you just look at the income tax itself, I think we can get down to 5% and I think we’ll be competitive with our other tax rates here in the state that are more favorable and competitive with the other states. And so that’s been my approach,” Hutchinson said. “If my successor wants to take a different view on that, then that’s up to them and the General Assembly but let’s stick with what we can do right now, which is continuing the path of lowering our individual income tax which has been a priority of mine that we have lowered from 7% down to now 5.9%. That is incredible progress and a benefit to Arkansas.”
Hutchinson also addressed redistricting and the future of bipartisanship in the state legislature. This past session saw more partisanship, especially on social issues, than in the past. Republicans hold 78 of 100 House seats and 27 of 35 Senate seats.
“I think my advice is that we work together as a team in Arkansas, whether Democrat or Republican. Let’s look at good solutions for our state and whenever you run, you run as a partisan but you serve as someone that’s just looking after Arkansas. That’s been our practice in the past and that would be my advice for the future,” he said.
This fall, state lawmakers will take up the once-a-decade task of redrawing Congressional district lines, while the Board of Apportionment – consisting of the Governor, Attorney General and Secretary of State – will redefine legislative districts for the next decade for the 135 members of the Arkansas Legislature.
Sen. Dismang said he hopes there will be easily identifiable logic in redrawing districts.
“What I’d like to see when we’re doing those is to make sure that we’re keeping counties intact as much as possible and cities intact because that’s been an issue too in the past. And really just trying to make maps that make sense. I don’t think there’s a whole lot to be gained on how we draw that politically between the two parties,” Dismang said.
Elliott agreed, but also noted that Arkansas is the only state in the South that has yet to elect a Black member to Congress.
“I think Arkansas being the only state that’s never ever elected a person of color to Congress, that to me is just something I think we ought to think about when we enjoin these lines. Is there a way we can make it possible that there is a possible opportunity that it could happen?” said Elliott, who joked she is not running for Congress again.
“It’s never going to happen in Arkansas until a majority group of white people decide they want to change that sorry history because if every Black person in this state voted for it, it still wouldn’t happen. So I think that’s a conversation we ought to look at having. I don’t know where it can go but we ought to have that conversation,” she said.
Though there may be little choice on how to redraw some legislative seats, Dismang and Elliott expressed concern that areas with large population losses in the Delta will struggle with representation at the state capitol as Northwest Arkansas and suburban central Arkansas gain more seats and influence.
“If the population boom keeps occurring up in Northwest Arkansas, they’re going to pick up maybe one to two Senate seats is my understanding, which means someone in the state is going to lose one to two Senate seats. South Arkansas already has a district right now that spreads about two and a half hours to get from one end of it to the other,” Dismang said.
“I expect you’re going to see a lot of that in the redrawing of the southern Senate districts in particular, which makes representation hard. Let’s not kid ourselves, when you’re stretched that far, it’s hard to make sure that you’re covering the ground you need to as a member,” he added.
Elliott said the changing demographics will inevitably lead to less minority representation in the state legislature.
“When we start trying to think about having any kind of balance between say, men, women people of color, trying to keep the kind of balance that we had originally when we first started electing more African-Americans to the legislature, for example, these are things people don’t think about but that’s going to become much harder. I’m so afraid we’re going to see a legislature that has even fewer people of color,” Elliott said.
You can watch the Governor’s comments in the video below and the following video is a portion of the town hall conversations with Sens. Elliott and Dismang.