Governor Hutchinson, House Speaker Jeremy Gillam (R-Judsonia) and Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren (R-Gravette) today met with Capitol reporters for a two-hour preview of the agenda for the 2017 legislative session, which begins next week. The legislative leaders answered questions for an hour, then the governor did the same.
I’ll make separate posts for the discussion of the two biggest topics, tax cuts and health care. Among the other topics covered were:
*Anti-LGBT legislation. It’s been widely expected that conservative legislators will introduce a “bathroom bill” targeting transgender people this session, a la North Carolina’s infamous HB 2. That state’s conservative legislature passed a law requiring transgender people to use bathrooms that match the sex on their birth certificate, among other things, supposedly in the name of protecting children from sexual predators. Opposition to the bill likely helped lead to the downfall of North Carolina’s Republican governor, Pat McCrory.
Hutchinson today made it clear he does not want such inflammatory legislation to emerge in Arkansas, but he stopped short of saying he’d veto a bill if passed by the legislature. He said a law restricting bathroom use was simply not necessary, and that he had communicated that to “the legislators of interest”:
I would choose to judge the issue on its merits and what’s needed in the state. I think the compelling arguments are: One, we don’t have a problem. Secondly, we’re awaiting more information from the courts and the Trump administration, and I do not believe that we ought to be engaged in legislation when there’s not a problem. … From the solutions I’ve seen in other states, they cay be counterproductive. They can be misconstrued or misapplied … When there’s not a problem, let’s don’t do anything.
Hendren and Gillam gave non-responses when asked if they’d support such legislation. Hendren said, “Whatever sex somebody is, if they do something obscene, there needs to be harsh punishments, especially if children are involved. … Now if we need a bathroom bill to prevent something like that from occurring, I don’t know. … If it’s punitive, if it’s something completely unreasonable, then probably not.” Gillam said he’d want to see “quantifiable data” before making a decision on whether such a bill was needed.
*An end to honoring Robert E. Lee on Martin Luther King Day. The governor has said before that he supports an end to Arkansas’s practice of recognizing Robert E. Lee along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the national King holiday. Today he offered his strongest language yet on the issue, and clarified that his proposal to honor Lee with a new date in October would not constitute a new state holiday. “We’re not going to have a day off … but it would be a recognition,” he said. Giving King his own day was “the right thing to do,” he said. Lee himself might support the move, Hutchinson mused:
I’m simply saying recognition of Lee should be moved to a different day. I’ve read biographies of Robert E. Lee … and he was on the wrong side of history. He was on the wrong side of that war. But I think you also have to look at how he tried to join in healing the nation afterwards. I think if Robert E Lee were here today, he would say ‘move my birthday, and Dr. King deserves the recognition.’ I think he was that type of person in history, and that’s how I see him. You know, we have certain icons in our history — from President Lincoln to President Washington — that will never change. But beyond that, I think that we will move in times of history to different people that we want to honor, and I think the time for a sole recognition of Dr. King is right now.
*Medical marijuana. Hutchinson said he’s been “very pleased” so far with the work of the Medical Marijuana Commission, which has been meeting frenetically to develop rules in accordance with the deadlines set by the amendment approved by voters recently. The governor said he was in agreement with “a number of items” proposed by Rep. Doug House (R-North Little Rock) that would make fairly modest changes to the medical marijuana amendment, such as extending some of those deadlines. Hutchinson said he would not support levying new taxes on medical marijuana to pay for other tax cuts. “It should not be used as a revenue generator for the state,” he said. Generally, he said, he’d prefer to see restrictions on marijuana be taken care of through rule-making before passing new legislation.
*Child welfare. Though they’ve received scant media attention in Arkansas, a number of bills sponsored by Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) would make major changes in the state’s child welfare system. In general, the proposed changes would give more rights to birth parents and birth families and ensure kids taken from their parents are more likely to be placed with relatives rather than other foster families. They would also create a process for reinstating parental rights that have been previously terminated, in some cases.
Hutchinson, who’s made increasing money for foster care a priority, said he didn’t yet have a position on the legislation in question, but he acknowledged the need for more relative placements. “There is some legislation that DHS is proposing that would help provide relative placement as a better first alternative and remove some of the restrictions on that. That’s something that I would support,” he said.
*Anti-immigrant legislation. Two separate bills propose stripping state funds from cities and from colleges or universities that enact “sanctuary policies,” meaning those that are more welcoming to undocumented immigrants. It’s still unclear if either will get any traction in the legislature, but immigrant advocates are keeping an eye on both. Hutchinson said he was skeptical of the state interfering in municipal policy. “I believe in the fundamental principle of allowing local governments to work, so I have a resistance to those types of mandates,” he said.
*Unaccompanied immigrant children sheltering in Arkansas. Federal plans to use the former Ouachita Job Corps Center in Royal, Ark. as a site to house unaccompanied minors have attracted the ire of conservative activists and the state’s all-Republican Congressional delegation. Hutchinson said he wanted the Job Corps center to be repurposed long-term by the National Guard to house a youth program, but that he had no problem with its use short-term to house undocumented children. He praised the congressmen for “trying to get more information about what [the Department of Health and Human Services] plans,” but added
If you look at unaccompanied minors — I had a lot of experience dealing with that when I was at Homeland Security. The vast majority pose absolutely no risk to the community. You think about the previous use of that facility, it was for troubled youth, and you could argue that they’re a risk if they escaped or left the facility. So I don’t think it’s an unreasonable safety risk. Because they generally are here because of a relative tie, they’re coming from Central America, 90 percent of them.
The governor did, however, indicate he might feel differently depending on what countries those minors hailed from. Can it be safely assumed that “overseas” here means “Syria”?
Now if the report comes back from HHS that they want to use that for for, ah, non-typical unaccompanied minors that might be coming from overseas, then that is a different issue, and there should be a more stringent vetting process for that.