Governor Hutchinson addresses a joint legislative session at 10:30 a.m. today. You can watch it here.
He’s previously outlined ideas for $50 million more in tax cuts; putting $100 million more in a rainy day fund rather than meeting immediate needs; expanding rural broadband; increasing teacher starting pay; requiring a computer course for high school graduation, and advocating a hate crimes bill, which seems doomed at the outset by anti-gay sentiment in the Arkansas legislature.
He will address the pandemic, though perhaps not address directly legislators’ desire to curb his emergency authority. Perhaps he’ll give concrete steps to improve the state’s poor performance in both curbing the virus and distributing vaccines.
He began with references to the pandemic and an assault on the nation’s Capitol by a “violent mob.” He called for the prosecution of all who “breached the wall of democracy.” He called for people to come together after the election. Will the session bring people together or “add more fuel” to division, he asked. He said the session won’t be acrimonious but will pass legislation to defeat the coronavirus, boost the economy, support police officers (applause line) and laws to increase accountability and oversight.
He called for action to reward teachers (applause line). He touted $800 million in past income tax cuts (overwhelmingly to pockets of millionaires, he didn’t say). He touted advancements in computer education and high-speed Internet in rural areas. He also touted the application of the sales tax to Internet sales, a boon, he said, to cities and counties. He said state government employment had declined by 1,500 in five years. And he said the state was in its best budget position in more than a decade, with an unallocated surplus of more than $200 million and more piling up this year.
He touted continuing job development in Arkansas and credited corporate welfare payments with attracting them (he called the handouts “economic incentives.”)
He defended the emergency rules in place until Feb. 27. He said he hoped the legislature would affirm those rules rather than “retreat” from the fight. Some legislatures hope to rein in the governor’s power.
He said he’ll ask the legislature for money to speed the vaccination program — for health department infrastructure, for testing and for contact tracing. These will require major spending bills, he said.
Money will be required for a two-year increase of $2,000 in beginning teacher pay.
He urged the legislators to consider hate crime legislation to enhance criminal penalties for crimes motivated by hate. It faces stiff opposition. He read letters in support of the proposal. “The status quo is unacceptable,” said one letter from a major corporation. Another noted that Arkansas is one of only three states without such a law, a “black eye for Arkansas on a national scale.”
Hutchinson argued that the legislation applies equally and does not create a special category of protection, as opponents claim. “The time to act is now,” he said.
He also praised Arkansas as the most “pro-life” — meaning anti-abortion — state in the country, another applause line.
He specifically for a reduction in sales tax from 6.5 to 3.5 percent on used cars and an income tax break for new residents.
He closed with a prayer for understanding, wisdom and justice for all.
With the political makeup of the legislature, the definition of those words will have a highly partisan interpretation, starting with the likely defeat of legislation aimed at further protecting despised minorities.