As I predicted last night, Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s big announcement today is a plan to ask the 2019 legislature for a “transformation” of state government that will cut the existing number of state departments in half, to about 20.

He said this will make government more efficient, responsive and accountable. He also seemed to promise state employees that the change would come without “massive” job reductions. He acknowledged employees will have concerns, people in high positions will have concerns and yes, people served by these agencies will have cause to wonder where the reorganized agency will fall in priorities.

In response to questions, he did say that he didn’t envision combining the Department of Human Services with the Health Department, a past idea that didn’t come to pass
survive its implementation by Gov. Mike Huckabee

But he talked repeatedly about a 50 percent reduction in state government. Such a reduction is meaningless unless it is a 50 percent reduction in spending. The same spending on fewer agencies doesn’t mean much in a practical sense.

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The talk of a 50 percent reduction is meant to resonate in the Republican primary against Jan Morgan, who rails about bloated government and paints Hutchinson as a liberal for backing a state budget next year that includes a rise in spending.

He said the process probably would start with boards and commission.

Hutchinson appointed a chief transformation officer, Amy Fecher, in December 2017. He insisted at the news conference today that transformation has been ongoing and productive. He cited movement of a career education agency into Higher Education.

The announcement doesn’t mean anything immediately, but “sets the stage” for next year’s session, as does his piling up of reserve dollars for a possible future tax cut. The recent decision to give tax money to private school parents will affect that calculus some. But turning down unmet needs for special ed students, pre-K and after-school tutoring helped. Efficiency, see.

State employees will be getting a letter about this today that says the initiative isn’t “directed” at them. “We want to hear from state employees how we can best do this.”

He said he hopes for a report by fall to prepare legislation.

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Hutchinson acknowledged some independent elements in government — transportation, game and fish and universities. About half the money spent by the state, outside the federally financed medical budget, goes to grade school education. The next big chunk goes to corrections.

In response to continuing questions about job impact, Hutchinson said: “We aren’t designing to lay off people, we are designing efficiencies.” He said he hoped job loss would be through attrition. “I do not anticipate layoffs.”

Hey, here’s an idea: How about putting the Department of Arkansas Heritage under the Parks and Tourism Department? That move COULD produce some efficiencies and savings if done right. A happier workforce almost for certain.

Here’s the governor’s release:

Governor Asa Hutchinson intends to present a transformation plan to the 2019 General Assembly that will reduce by 50 percent the number of cabinet-level agencies in state government, the governor announced today.

Currently, 42 cabinet-level agencies report directly to the Governor.  The plan is to reduce that number to fewer than 20 to better serve the people of Arkansas and to more efficiently deliver services.  In addition, we will review the more than 200 boards and commissions as part of the reform effort.

“This will be the first major reform in 47 years,” Governor Hutchinson said. “In 1972, then-Governor Dale Bumpers led an effort to reduce the number of state agencies from 60 to 13 major departments.  In the nearly 50 years since, our state government has reversed course, and now there are more than 40 state agencies that have cabinet-level status.  By contrast, the federal government has only 15. To lead responsibly, we must take conservative measures such as this to transform state government.”

This new initiative began with Senate Bill 1202 that former Senator Eddie Joe Williams sponsored in 2015. The bill directed the executive branch to consider this type of reform in the organization of state agencies.  In addition to the action called for in the bill, the Transformation Advisory Board (TAB), which the governor created in 2017 and is chaired by Michael Carroll, has recommended a restructuring of state government agencies in order to deliver services in a more effective way and to reduce costs.  Lieutenant Governor Tim Griffin serves as vice chair, and Amy Fecher is the state Chief Transformation Officer.

The next step in this historic transformation project is for the Transformation Advisory Board to solicit ideas from state employees, agency directors, and legislators.

UPDATE: For uninformed, hypocritical boosterism, we turn to the canned release from Attorney General Leslie Rutledge:

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge today applauds Governor Asa Hutchinson’s transformation plan, which will reduce the number of state agencies and save Arkansas taxpayers’ hard-earned money.

“Just as I have cut the budget for the Attorney General’s Office, it is time to cut costs across state government. The people deserve a government that not only works for them but works to save taxpayer dollars by cutting extraneous spending. Governor Hutchinson’s plan will ensure that Arkansas does business more efficiently and citizens are better served by the government officials they elect

Has the state budget decreased in four years of Hutchinson leadership so far? It has not. Has he ratcheted up pay significantly for his people — AEDC, DHS, top staffers? Yes.