Governor’s budget won’t move state forward

by Grant Tennille ([email protected]) 1,052 views 

Arkansas deserves a budget – and elected leaders – who value this state and all her people. We have to ask ourselves, does the budget Gov. Asa Hutchinson proposed at the start of the Arkansas Legislature’s fiscal session meet the needs of Arkansas?

This question can only be answered if we are brave enough to be honest about the true state of our state. Economic development is moving in the wrong direction in two-thirds of our counties, and no one is presenting a path forward for these communities. Our progress in moving our education system from adequacy to excellence has fallen stagnant as the state struggles to keep up even with basic yearly increases to maintain the status quo (not to mention an exodus of teachers). The very maintenance of our education system, and our infrastructure, is barely treading water.

Let’s be honest about it here, even if it may not be politically expedient to say out loud for my Republican friends and neighbors: few of the announcements or investments hailed by the Governor during his State of the State address would be possible without the enormous influx of federal support passed by Democrats in Congress and President Joe Biden.

It seems like the investments in our future, and in keeping our economy afloat during the pandemic, are coming from the federal government – and they weren’t even supported by Arkansas Republicans. But this is par for the course in today’s politics: Democrats are charged with righting the ship, and Republicans show up at ribbon cuttings.

Our state is receiving a historic investment of $4 billion for infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and broadband. Arkansas businesses received critical pandemic relief funds, families got an expanded Child Tax Credit, and working people got stimulus checks that prevented disaster. That’s because of responsible and bipartisan action taken by Democrats. The Governor has acknowledged as much in various interviews, just not on the floor before a joint session of the Legislature.

He did highlight one federal investment he’s excited about, a $54 million plan to build an electric vehicle charging network in Arkansas. That’s progress. It’s also an achievement that wouldn’t have come about under the policies of this Legislature, which has slapped punitive tax hikes on electric car owners in recent years.

Taking a step back to the state budget, it’s clear that it fails to meet the needs of Arkansas. The proposed budget does not include any significant funding for economic development in rural Arkansas, for building an excellent education system, or for rebuilding crumbling communities.

Arkansas has opportunities at our feet if we’re willing to take them, if we’re willing to invest in our state and the future of our families. But the budget presented by Gov. Hutchinson and backed by the Republicans in the Legislature, unfortunately is not based on the real needs of this state. Arkansas’ real needs include economic development for rural Arkansas, bringing in broadband Internet, making bridges safe for the next 25 years, and doing something to move the needle on education past adequacy towards excellence.

Instead, this budget is focused on two things: short-term, temporary boosts to law enforcement and a massive investment in a new prison. We support law enforcement by providing good salaries, not with bandaid bonuses. We keep our families safe by addressing the real needs of our communities. Building bigger jails and incarcerating more people has never been proven to make us safer. We should focus on locking up the people who make us afraid, not the people we’re mad at.

Arkansas has an incarceration rate of 942 per 100,000 people (including prisons, jails, immigration detention, and juvenile justice facilities), meaning that it locks up a higher percentage of its people than any democracy on Earth. The state led the region in growth in jail admissions over a decade period in a recent report, rising by 80%. Building more prisons should never be viewed as an economic opportunity in this state.

This budget is not designed to move our state forward, and this holding pattern is trapping far too many communities and families in poverty and poor health. These are Arkansas taxpayers who deserve better from their government.

Let’s commit ourselves to building Arkansas into the place we know it can be. We owe it to ourselves, and our families, to value this state and to make our budget work for us.

Editor’s note: Grant Tennille is the chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas. He served as the director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission under Gov. Mike Beebe. The opinions expressed are those of the author.