Fiscal session likely last one for Arkansas’ governor
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson is delivering his last state of state address to lawmakers and kicking off what may be his last legislative session with the state sitting on a more than a $1 billion surplus and the latest surge in COVID-19 cases subsiding.
But the Republican governor and legislative leaders face uncertainty on whether they can keep the session focused on the state’s budget or will have to fend off renewed pushes for abortion restrictions and other proposals.
HUTCHINSON’S FINAL SESSION?
Hutchinson, a Republican who is serving his last year as governor, will deliver his final state of the state address to members of the House and Senate on the first day of the session on Monday. Term limits bar him from running for governor again.
Unless he calls the Legislature back in for a special session, it will be his last as governor.
The session is beginning as the state has seen a drop in new COVID-19 cases and in hospitalizations, after hitting record highs during a surge fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant.
Hutchinson has enjoyed a higher profile nationally due to his role as chairman of the National Governors Association, and his comments trying to distance himself and the GOP from former President Donald Trump. He’s also speaking just a couple months after winning approval of a massive tax cut plan.
“It’s really important to highlight the successes we’ve had, but I also want to talk about the future,” Hutchinson told The Associated Press about his plans for the speech.
Most of the attention will be on Hutchinson’s proposed $6 billion budget for the coming fiscal year, which calls for a 3.3% increase in state spending. The proposal includes money for raises for State Police troopers and to ease the state’s waiting list for services for the developmentally disabled.
Sen. Jonathan Dismang, who co-chairs the Joint Budget Committee, said he expects there may be some “tamping down” of the spending increase or a desire to use existing fund balances in some areas.
“I think we just need to be as conservative as we possibly can be,” said Dismang, R-Beebe.
Democrats, who have argued the recent tax cuts have come as the state is underfunding needs, are also likely to seek additional funding in some areas.
Hutchinson said last week that he also wants to tap into the state’s surplus to pay for a nearly 500-bed expansion of the state’s prison system. Hutchinson said the project will cost between $60 million and $100 million, and construction can begin early next year if approved.
Legislative leaders say there’s also been discussions about directing some one-time money toward law enforcement agencies around the state, though it’s unclear how much would be used and how the funding would be structured.
The fiscal session is intended to focus on the budget, but bills that are not related to the budget can be considered if there’s two-thirds support of lawmakers in both chambers.
Legislative leaders said they’re expecting a push for some non-budget bills to get introduced.
“I think the fireworks will be outside the budget, if there are any fireworks,” said Rep. Lane Jean, R-Magnolia, who co-chairs the Joint Budget Committee.
Republican Sen. Jason Rapert said he’ll try again with an abortion ban modeled after Texas’ restrictive law, which leaves enforcement up to private citizens.
“We sit in a position here to do even more,” said Rapert, of Conway.
Hutchinson and legislative leaders say the want to keep the session’s focus on the budget. The Republican governor has also said the state should wait to see what happens from the Supreme Court, which will issue a ruling this year on Mississippi’s law that bans abortions at 15 weeks. That decision could weaken or overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide.
“To me, the wise call is to make sure we get an understanding of the problems that are associated with the Texas enforcement scheme, which can be applied to other constitutional rights, and we also wait for guidance from the Supreme Court on the Mississippi case,” Hutchinson said.
Other non-budget items legislative leaders say they’ve heard discussed include a renewed attempt to place limits on how race is taught in schools.
The Legislature is also expected to take up proposals aimed at curbing costs of the state’s health insurance plans, which Hutchinson and legislative leaders say they believe can be addressed during the fiscal session.