Here’s a few more thoughts from the AP’s forum this afternoon giving local press a chance to ask questions of incoming governor Asa Hutchinson, Senate President Pro Tem Jonathan Dismang and House Speaker Jeremy Gillam about the upcoming legislative session. We had an hour to speak with Asa first, then another hour with the legislative leadership. (They’re all Republicans, of course.)
Hutchinson’s top priority is – surprise, surprise – tax cuts and the economic growth they’re supposed to deliver. He’d like to get his $100 million income tax cut passed right away, which would affect the middle-income range of households making between roughly $20,000 and $75,000 annually. “I know that some governors in the past have held their agenda items more towards the end [of a legislative session]. I’d like to have the session get off to a quick start,” he said.”That sends the right message to Arkansas that this session is about jobs, it’s about economic growth, it’s about a new day in Arkansas where we can be competitive with other states.”
More noteworthy is something Hutchinson said later when asked whether he’d consider delaying a previous round of tax cuts passed by the legislature in 2013, which are set to go into effect later this year. (Outgoing Gov. Mike Beebe has said the state should delay those scheduled cuts, given budget constraints.) Nothing is finalized, Asa said, but “some of them will be on the table for discussion about delay.”
In other words: Asa’s middle-income cut takes priority over the others. Those include a sales tax exemption on utilities for some manufacturers, a capital gains exemption and an additional income tax cut, the 2013 brainchild of Rep. Charlie Collins (R-Fayetteville). Later, reporters asked Dismang and Gillam whether the legislature would consider delaying those previous cuts; they were noncommittal. “There’s a possibility of that happening,” said Dismang; Gillam said the legislature was “deliberately looking at” options.
Republicans are going to cut taxes one way or the other — but it matters where they cut, and by how much. Dismang and Gillam were both careful to speak as impartial arbiters of their respective chambers and praised the incoming governor and his handling of the transition period. But as we’ve noted in the past, the future political battles of the state will be determined by Republican vs. Republican; it’ll be an early test of the GOP’s unity underneath the new governor if some legislative members don’t take kindly to their cuts being delayed. But we’ll see.
One more note about taxes: One journalist brought up the fiscal disaster now unfolding in Kansas, a state that’s ruthlessly slashed its budget in the pursuit of economic growth under Governor Sam Brownback. “Governor Brownback did get reelected,” Asa noted, which isn’t reassuring. But, he continued, “you just can’t compare what they did in Kansas with what I’m recommending for Arkansas…[this is] geared towards what we can afford … it’s not draconian … it’s the right balance.”
Hutchinson also made some interesting comments regarding prisons and the parole system. As I wrote last month, Asa has the chance to take a stand on criminal justice reform: He’s a former prosecutor and drug enforcement official, which gives him the credibility to make a push for changes in the state’s overcrowded, underfunded prisons, and he’s made comments in the past that indicate he understands the system is in need of reform. Plus, he’s working with a General Assembly filled with fellow Republicans.
The Department of Corrections previously told the legislature it needs a $100 million new prison to address the overcrowding issue, but neither Asa nor the legislative leadership seem to show much interest in that high-dollar option. Dismang was unequivocal: “I have not had a discussion with a member who supported doing that,” he said.
Hutchinson said he’s asked his incoming director of Corrections to “present me with … a variety of options” to addressing the shortage of prison beds. That presumably includes bad ideas like privatizing prisons, but Hutchinson also mentioned much better ones: Addressing recidivism, building a better parole system and making changes to criminal sentencing guidelines. 90 percent of incoming inmates are previous offenders, he noted.
“Repeat offenders who are recycling constantly through our system,” Asa said, and while some are “committed to a life of violence and crime,” others are “coming out of prison and not having the ability to get a job, not having a place to live, and so they go back into a criminal offense because they have no other option.” He also commented on the lack of the reentry system for parolees. “We have about a thousand in prison that have been approved for parole release, but they have no housing plan for how to return to society. This is a thousand beds that would be freed up, but there’s no reentry program, no housing that’s available to them … I’d like to be able to partner to a greater extent with the faith-based community, with the nonprofits, to make sure housing assistance is there. …That’s where you’ve got to change behavior and break that cycle.”
“We have to invest money in a reentry program and an effective parole system,” he said. “We must have a parole system … with the capability of changing behavior of parolees. That is my objective with criminal justice reform.” Not bad for a Republican governor. Now, will the legislature bite, or will it continue to talk about privatization?