Asa Hutchinson is already taking advantage of the opportunity belonging to every new governor to transform the highest levels of state government.
After eight years with a Democrat at the helm of the executive branch, Republican Hutchinson’s agency director appointments are also an opportunity to shape the next four years of business in the state.
Hutchinson will have free rein to swap out the roster of agency directors who served under Gov. Mike Beebe, but how many he chooses to replace remains to be seen.
It is not uncommon for a governor to extend a director’s service into a new administration, even when one party is replacing the other in the executive branch. But the appointments are also an opportunity for a new governor to reward campaign staff and put like-minded operatives in charge across state government.
Hutchinson announced last week that he had asked the directors of the Arkansas Crime Information Center, Arkansas State Crime Lab and the Disability Determination for Social Security Administration to stay on. All three accepted the extensions.
But there will be new faces in at least two high-profile jobs. Hutchinson has already said he plans to replace Grant Tennille as head of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, and Richard Weiss will retire as director of the Department of Finance & Administration after Beebe’s term.
A slew of other possible appointments to various positions, from the Alcoholic Beverage Control Administration to the Department of Emergency Management, remain.
Hutchinson has created a website for potential appointees to apply for jobs. A spokesman for his transition team said they are performing reviews of the different state agencies but did not make someone available to discuss the governor-elect’s appointments.
Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, said it is likely that Hutchinson will try to strike a balance between appointing people with experience and those who share his views. She said Beebe had more personal experience with state government before assuming the office of governor but still surrounded himself with people familiar with their offices.
“There’s a lot of research to show executives at all levels benefit from experienced staff. It usually can smooth the transition, help them avoid some of the pitfalls of that transition,” Parry said.
But Parry said Hutchinson would probably also make at least some appointments that would focus on achieving his campaign promises.
Tennille, Beebe’s director of the AEDC, said Hutchinson’s appointment to the position could propel the new governor’s vision during his term.
Tennille said he had a close relationship with Beebe and shared a mutual trust with the governor, which he said helped during negotiating with businesses. He said he expects Hutchinson to appoint someone with whom he has the same bond.
“To think that any new governor wouldn’t want his own person in this role is just kind of silly. This is one of the big two, three or four agencies in the state. It certainly has been under Gov. Beebe and I think it will remain so, based on the things he campaigned on, for Gov. Hutchinson. He needs his own guy,” Tennille said.
During his time at the agency, Tennille oversaw the Legislature’s approval of the first economic development “super project” under Amendment 82. He points to that $1.3 billion Big River Steel project as one of his biggest accomplishments.
Tennille said he plans to stay on as long as Hutchinson needs him, but that most of the work was complete on a second Amendment 82 project — as yet unidentified — that is expected to be presented to the Legislature during the upcoming session. He said that project, and the state’s growing attraction for business, will put his successor in a good position.
“I think we’re in for a pretty good ride here if the global economy continues to progress in the direction that it looks like — and if the state’s economy does,” Tennille said.
Tennille said he did expect some things to change at the agency during Hutchinson’s term.
“I think if you’ll see some differences it will be in the governor-elect’s and the Republican Party’s faith in the fact that tax cuts generate economic growth. I think that they will use that lever to try and create the changes they want to an even greater degree than Gov. Beebe did over his eight years,” Tennille said.
DF&A’s Weiss to Retire
The governor-elect will be without at least one experienced director: the state’s chief fiscal officer.
Richard Weiss has served as the head of the Department of Finance & Administration since 2002 and previously led that department from 1994 to 1999. He has worked under three governors, including most of Mike Huckabee’s term, and worked at the department during the transition of each of them.
Weiss said the role he played during each administration varied depending on the skills each governor brought to the table. He said relations between the governor and the Legislature were largely harmonious during Beebe’s term, but not all governors experienced that.
“For quite a few years of Gov. Huckabee[‘s term], there was a great deal of dislike and mistrust between the executive and the legislative [branches], and whether rightly or wrong, I saw my role as someone who both sides trusted and could get both sides to try to make things work,” Weiss said.
Weiss said that one of the bigger challenges his successor will face will be reconciling the state’s fiscal obligations with available funds. In Beebe’s final budget, which he presented to the Legislature this month, the term-limited governor recommended delaying about $29.5 million in tax cuts.
The Republican-led Legislature passed a total of about $140 million in tax cuts during the last legislative session.
“The tax cuts the Legislature passed — while they made great partisan sense to the people who passed them — boy, you can’t maybe just flip the switch and not put any more money into prisons or Medicaid or some of those things,” Weiss said.
Willing to Stay
Several agency directors said they would likely stay on if Hutchinson will keep them.
Michael Langley, the director of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Administration, said he’d be happy to continue his work. Langley was appointed after working as a lawyer on Beebe’s campaign, but said he worked with both parties on crafting legislation.
Under Langley’s direction, the agency modernized many of its practices and worked with the industry and legislators to relax some of the state’s alcohol laws.
“It is a difficult issue to ever deal with because it doesn’t matter what party, people have issues. Some of them are business issues and some people have personal or moral issues or their constituents do that make making decisions on alcohol difficult,” Langley said.
David Maxwell, who has worked in emergency management since 1978 and has been director of ADEM since he was appointed by Huckabee in 2006, said he would also like to stay on. He said he didn’t notice much change between Huckabee and Beebe, besides how they communicated, and wouldn’t expect much change in Hutchinson’s administration.
“In my field, my issues are usually pretty bipartisan. I’m not sure it’ll make a whole lot of difference,” Maxwell said.
Arkansas Securities Commissioner Heath Abshure said he wasn’t sure what his plans are after Beebe’s departure. The commissioner’s term was occasionally marked by heated exchanges with the Legislature and complaints from the business community he regulated.
But he said he felt like he worked well with members of both parties and with businesses.
“I think that you need to foster that communication. Your job as securities commissioner is not just solely in investor protection. It’s about creating that balanced marketplace. If Gov. Beebe or any legislator thought that I was doing anything to inhibit proper economic development and the growth of business and the creation of jobs, I think they would have strung me up,” Abshure said.