Gov.-elect Asa Hutchinson made plenty of news in a pre-session Q&A with reporters at the state capitol on Tuesday. Saying he wanted a “quick start” to his legislative agenda, Hutchinson touched on issues ranging from tax cuts to prison overcrowding to health care reform and education.
"I hope to accomplish the agenda I campaigned on," Hutchinson told reporters at a capitol forum sponsored by the Associated Press Managing Editors.
Hutchinson also discussed at length his positions on the state lottery, highway funding, and ethics and elections reforms.
The Governor-elect said he wanted to pass his $100 million middle-class tax cut plan early in the session. He said he didn’t think the cost impact would undercut the state budget, but he did say that some forthcoming tax cuts “may be on the table for discussion or delay.”
He also said his income tax cut proposal was not “draconian.” He did not envision a scenario where the cuts would undermine the state budget like Kansas officials experienced last year.
“You can’t compare what they did in Kansas with what I want to do here in Arkansas,” said Hutchinson. “We can handle it with our growth in our normal budget.”
Hutchinson spent a large bulk of his hour with reporters discussing prison concerns. The state is dealing with major prison overcrowding and Hutchinson said that it was a budget problem and societal problem to address.
His preliminary inquiries show that the state prison population is currently around 17,800, about 3,500 over capacity. Another 2,100 prisoners are backed up in county jails. Hutchinson said about 90% of those in state prison are previous offenders and 10% are new offenders. Pledging more money for parole programs, he said another 1,000 inmates eligible for parole have no housing options if they are released.
“You’re incarcerating repeat, repeat offenders,” said Hutchinson, noting that providing better re-entry programs and changing the behavior of parolees has to be a big priority. He said he wants to heighten discussions with faith-based organizations and nonprofits to improve re-entry program options.
“That’s where you have to change behaviors and break that cycle,” Hutchinson said. “That is my objective in criminal justice reforms.”
Declaring a $100 million new prison unlikely, Hutchinson said he’s open to housing prisoners in Louisiana as a temporary fix and he said that outsourcing prison functions to private enterprises would need to be studied carefully as the state has had poor experiences with them in the past.
On the education front, Hutchinson said he hoped to move quickly on his computer coding initiative that was a centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign.
On the issue of Common Core, he said he would convene a task force to study the controversial initiative. Hutchinson said his task force would include teachers, educators and parents. He also said he would support a new examination of the 350-student threshold for school consolidation, an outcome of the historic Lake View decision.
The Governor-elect said there should be factors that would contribute to a waiver on the student number threshold such as academically and financially sound schools where consolidation could create long bus rides for students. Stopping short of specifics, Hutchinson generalized that there should be factors in a review or repeal of school consolidation.
HEALTH CARE, LOTTERY, ETHICS, ROADS
The private option and other health care reforms will be front-and-center in the 90th General Assembly. Hutchinson has said previously he would wait until late January to make his positions known on the PO and other efforts.
At Tuesday’s Q&A, Hutchinson said he would make a major speech on health care reform that would outline his positions on these items.
“Legislators want to see a bigger picture of not just the private option, but healthcare reform and the long-term impact,” he said.
Hutchinson is supportive of legislative efforts to change the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery. While he said the lottery would operate better in the executive branch of government, he said he thinks the Department of Finance and Administration might be a “better fit” than the Department of Higher Education, where legislators are considering placing the lottery’s staff.
The Governor-elect also said he hoped there would be significant efforts made on ethics and election reforms.
“I think there’s a need for election reform and a broader discussion about ethics reform,” he said. Claiming he wants “bipartisan solutions,” Hutchinson said he supports online filing for statewide candidates and raising individual limits on campaign contributions, which are currently $2,000 per person per election.
Hutchinson didn’t specify how much he hoped individual contributions would be raised, but he expressed concern about outside group spending, which aren’t subject to as many disclosure rules.
Hutchinson said he would not propose a highway funding plan in the regular session, citing a need for a consensus between economic developers, higher education and the highway industry.