Gov. Asa Hutchinson trotted out some favorite themes and success stories before a friendly crowd at Tuesday’s Rotary Club of Little Rock luncheon at the Clinton Presidential Center.
Itemizing his keys for the state’s future — economic diversity, tax competitiveness, a presence in the global marketplace, recruitment and workforce development — Hutchinson touted Arkansas’ economic stability and provided a glimpse of some of the day-to-day moments that make his job unique.
“It is a great job and the highest privilege,” Hutchinson said.
Fresh off his first cabinet meeting since consolidating the number of state government reporting agencies from 42 to 15, Hutchinson noted the value of “more efficient spending.”
The projected $15 million a year in savings from thinning the state agencies, a $295 million a year budget surplus and a $150 million, long-term savings account are all the results of efficiency, Hutchinson said, even as he has cut taxes and raised teacher salaries.
“Savings has to be intentional,” he said. “It doesn’t happen by accident.”
Hutchinson also touched on somewhat thornier issues with which the state has dealt.
With medical marijuana sales at $2.2 million since dispensaries opened following legalization, Hutchinson noted the state had been deliberate in licensing and implementation in order to ensure marijuana was handled strictly as medicine.
A former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration and undersecretary in the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, Hutchinson reiterated his opposition to recreational legalization, saying he thought it would be bad for the quality of the workforce.
Earlier in the day, Arkansas Business reported that an organization led by cannabis activist Melissa Fults planned to file two petitions for ballot proposals dealing with marijuana, one of which would legalize recreational use.
“I do not believe it is the right direction to go for Arkansas,” he said to applause.
While taking questions, Hutchinson defended work requirements, currently held up in court, for recipients of Arkansas Works, the state’s version of Medicaid expansion. He said, to qualify, people need to show some responsibility by working, undergoing some sort of training or volunteering in the community.
“We’ll see what the courts say on that,” he said.
Hutchinson underscored the value of technology to the state’s job creation efforts, which have to date resulted in a 3.6% unemployment rate. He said there had been a 300% increase in the number of Little Rock School district students studying computer coding, for example.
“We’re trying to add technology to the mix of economic strength,” he said.
Hutchinson also provided a snapshot of the range of duties that come with his job.
From disaster preparedness in the face of the recent, historic flooding to touting Arkansas’ aero defense industry at the Paris Air Show last month to hosting a computer science summit for representatives from 30 states, Hutchinson said every day is different.
“I spent my life learning how to handle situations you’re not always prepared for,” said Hutchinson, noting his time in the DEA and the Department of Homeland Security.
It’s not all about dollar figures and life and death decisions, Hutchinson said. He recalled doing a report on the state of Pennsylvania as a fifth-grader, which led him to respond personally to students who reach out to him for similar school assignments.
One student, a girl from Texas, was so impressed by Hutchinson’s letter that her family brought her to Little Rock and the Capitol during a school break, surprising Hutchinson in the middle of the legislative session.
“She wants to see you and she acts like she’s on a mission from God,’ “ said Hutchinson, recalling the words of his receptionist.