Delivering his "State of the State" address Tuesday to a joint session of the state Legislature, Gov. Asa Hutchinson urged lawmakers to affirm his COVID-19 emergency declaration and approve a hate crimes bill that's received a cool reception from legislators.
The governor also touted previous work to lower income taxes and attract new employers, and, citing the riot at the U.S. Capitol last week, he encouraged legislators to "not let passion cloud our common sense" and "work together for the common good."
In a roughly 24-minute address, Hutchinson pressed an agenda that includes using more federal dollars to get COVID-19 vaccinations out more quickly and efforts to improve state Health Department infrastructure for vaccination administration and contact tracing.
"We must not be faint of heart, but we must keep fighting and not call for retreat, as some would advocate," he said.
In asking lawmakers to affirm his declaration of a state of emergency, set to expire on Feb. 27, Hutchinson aims to continue special rules allowing for expanded telemedicine, education waivers and liability immunity for certain businesses during the pandemic. The governor has faced pushback from some lawmakers who are seeking greater input from the Legislature on the emergency actions taken by the executive branch.
"If you do not act, those measures will end," the governor said.
The governor also pressed his case for the hate crimes bill, which he's acknowledged as perhaps the biggest challenge of the session. The governor read letters from business and religious leaders, including IBM and Scott Copas of Little Rock, president of Fifty for the Future, who urged its passage.
"Not only is hate crime legislation the right thing to do morally, failure to pass a bill will leave Arkansas as only one of three states without such a law," Copas wrote. "This would negatively impact our ability to recruit and retain employers and talent as it will result in a black eye for Arkansas on a national scale that will cripple our economic development efforts for years to come."
The governor cited lawmakers who said the law would give some people more protection than others.
"This legislation applies equally," he said. "If you are Hispanic and you are targeted, it applies. If you are Jewish, it applies. If you are Caucasian, it applies. Or African American or any other race, it applies equally. It enhances the penalty for targeting regardless of the race that is targeted."
The governor said the only way for Arkansans to reach an agreement on the issue is to listen to each other and to "step into others' shoes who live in a different world than ours."
"My only request is that you listen and make your own judgment on the merits and fairness of the bill," the governor said.
The governor also asked the Legislature to:
- Approve his $5.9 billion budget, which includes $50 million in tax cuts and moving $100 million of surplus into the state's rainy day fund. The tax cuts include taking the sales tax on used cars priced from $4,000 to $10,000 from 6.5% to 3.5%, which enjoys wide support. But it also includes a proposal to lower the individual tax rate for new Arkansans to 4.9% for five years, which Hutchinson said will attract new residents — an idea some legislative leaders have been wary of.
- Approve a plan to spend $30 million to further expand rural broadband.
- Require a computer science course as a graduation credit in high schools.
- Raise average teacher salaries by $2,000 over next the next two years.
In laying out his agenda, Hutchinson noted past accomplishments, including previous moves to lower the individual income tax rate, which is now at 5.9%, and extending the sales tax to online purchases, putting e-commerce giants on equal footing with Arkansas businesses.
He also cited a near-$87 million effort to expand broadband internet to 70,000 Arkansans who previously lacked it, and his reorganization of state government, which resulted in 1,700 fewer state employees since 2015 — an annual savings of $77 million.
Hutchinson said that despite a "struggling" national economy, Arkansas begins the legislative session in the best position in 10 years, with a $200 million surplus and a budget that's ahead of forecast by $300 million halfway through the fiscal year.
"Our state budget reflects a resilient state economy in which the private sector continues to create jobs," he said, noting recent job creation announcements from companies including Synergy Cargo in Crossett, Emerson Motors in Ash Flat, NicePak in Jonesboro and Hytrol Conveyor Co. in Fort Smith.
In all, companies created 2,200 jobs and invested $800 million in Arkansas last year, the governor said, and 53,000 more Arkansans are employed today than in January 2015, when Hutchinson took office.
The governor began his address with a call for lawmakers to work together. Citing the "violent mob assault of the nation's Capitol" last week, the Hutchinson said that while a presidential election often divides the country, "when the election is over, we need to come together." He said that while some predict an acrimonious session that will accomplish little, he expects lawmakers to "meet the challenge of the moment."