Daily Record Conversations
February 24 - March 1, 2020
DR Conversations is a new monthly feature by the Daily Record, where we sit down with top business, government and nonprofit leaders in Central Arkansas. Our first “conversation” is with Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the 46th governor of the state of Arkansas. In 2006, Hutchinson was the Republican nominee for governor of Arkansas, but was defeated by Democratic candidate Mike Beebe, the outgoing state attorney general. In 2014, Hutchinson was again the Republican nominee for governor, this time winning the election by defeating Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Ross. He won re-election in 2018 with nearly two thirds of the vote.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson: Computer-Coding, Cappuccino-Addicted Chief Executive
By Kim Dishongh
What do you consider to be the biggest accomplishments of your tenure as governor thus far? And what are some of the challenges you have faced?
“In terms of accomplishments, I would first say we’re not done yet. There’s a lot more to do. But you know, the first initiative that I had was computer science in every high school, and that accomplishment has certainly exceeded my expectations. I hope that in the final analysis we can point to that as a transformational, historic change for Arkansas in terms of creating technology jobs, and, you know, anytime that we can be acclaimed as leading the nation in a field such as computer science, it’s certainly a signature achievement for our state.
“The greatest impact governor can have is on individual lives and giving hope, and I hope that I’ve done that also during the last four years. That’s one of the reasons that when we look at the future, there’s more that we need to do in terms of taking care of our children and, secondly, giving people a second chance in life whenever they are coming out of prison or have suffered from addiction or mental health crisis.
“Obviously, moving our state to competitive income tax rates has been historic because we reversed the trend of the past, of simply raising taxes when there’s a need, and we’re moving our tax rate from 7% when I became governor, down to 5.9% next year. Also, raising teacher pay, and I would certainly point to transforming state government as again historic in nature – it hadn’t been done in 50 years. I think that’s something that will make a lasting difference in Arkansas.”
What will be the highlights of your agenda for the fiscal session starting in April?
“I think the highlight will be continuing to invest in long-term savings for our state. A lot of people call it a Rainy Day Fund, but rainy day funds we have to use, historically in Arkansas, for capital improvements and other needs that pop up. What I’ve tried to do is to create a genuine, long-term savings account for our state that has a very high bar to touch in order to reach whenever there’s an economic downturn or some other extraordinary need. When I became governor, we didn’t have any savings. Now we have $150 million in savings, and I hope in our fiscal session we can add more to that.
“I think one of the big issues will be being able to fulfill my goal of putting $25 million into our Rural Connect grant program for high speed broadband in rural areas of our state, so I’ve asked the legislature for $25 million for that purpose, and I think we’ve already got $7 million that’s put in there. We’ve got to allocate money for that, which is critically important for our state and accelerating the development of that infrastructure in small towns of Arkansas and our small communities and in our homes that happen to be on the mountainside.”
Arkansas has been in the middle of the trade wars involving China and the former NAFTA agreement under the Trump administration. Now that the administration has signed a long-awaited trade deal with China and passed the bipartisan USMCA deal involving Mexico and China, how will this impact Arkansas’ manufacturing, farming businesses sectors and other industries impacted by international trade.
“Both the United States Mexico Canada Agreement and the phase one of the China trade agreement will be a great benefit to Arkansas, agriculture and our economy as a whole, the reason being that we’re exporters when it comes to our rice, our soybeans, cotton, and poultry and beef, and this will help open up global markets, it will reduce the barriers for us marketing those products overseas. So it’s a huge positive step for Arkansas.”
Secondly, are the China-influenced manufacturing deals your administration announced in Arkadelphia and Forrest City still on the table?
“They’re still on the table, they’re still moving forward, just at a much slower pace than what we would wish. But it’s understandable whenever you look at a prolonged trade war, and now followed by an economic setback in China with the coronavirus.”
You have about three years left in your term as governor. What are some of the big goals you hope to achieve in that time?
“In terms of bigger agenda items, what we need to accomplish as a state, it would be, number one, finish the job on the highway funding plan that’s on the ballot this November. I’m going to be spending a lot of energy and time working to get that half-cent extension passed. That’s a historic opportunity to increase funding for our highways and bridges and keep up with the growth that we have. Secondly, we’ve made tremendous strides in improving workforce education, but there’s more to do. We need to increase the investment in our career learning centers, both in terms of access, quality of equipment, and instruction. And then third is education. That’s part of education, but we want to continue to make improvements on education. We just really laid the foundation of literacy progress and improvements in reading skills. I hope that in the next three years we’re going to see more progress. We’ve laid the foundation with our RISE initiative, so it’s just a matter of following through and making sure that’s done.”
Your initial campaign for governor focused heavily on your experience with Homeland Security. Of course, much has changed regarding immigration policies under the Trump administration, but some people were surprised by your recent decision to renew the Refugee Resettlement program in our state. With that said, would you please share your thoughts on where Arkansas is as a state in terms of security, threats and preparedness issues and discuss some of the measures put in place to address those issues under your leadership?
“In terms of the refugees, that decision was made, one, because they’re coming here legally. Secondly, because the Trump administration increased the security checks and the vetting process. And third, because the priorities have changed. Whereas before, there were simply a massive amount of Syrian refugees coming in and they didn’t have sufficient background checks, these are those who have cooperated with the United States and those under religious persecution, so a lot changed. We worked with the Trump administration to accept those refugees.
“In terms of the broader immigration policies and safety issues, our focus has been to a large extent on improving the security of our schools, and that’s why I had the School Safety Commission that was established that did an extraordinary job, that enhanced security measures in our schools dramatically, improving school counseling in our schools, it also addresses the safety issue.
“In terms of the threats that come from outside, we are concerned about cyberattacks, and we’re addressing that both in an education format of trying to increase our training of those that understand cyber security, but also just the security measures here within state government because there is a real vulnerability across the country, and we just had a Cabinet meeting this morning where we talked about cyber threats, the precautions that we ought to take and just stress that with each of our cabinet officials.”
You have downplayed a possible run as president following your service as governor, but is there any possibility you might make a run in the future? Do you have any other higher political aspirations?
“We’ll have to wait and see what the future holds, but I’ve got three years left. That’s a lifetime in politics. I don’t want to lose sight of what we want to accomplish here and what we need to do, and I’m blessed. I could be very happy going to the private sector or if there’s another opportunity in the public sector, I’ll look at that, but that’s down the road. All my focus is here for the next three years.”
You are often seen with a cup of coffee in your hand – you have one now, as a matter of fact. What is your usual order?
“I got addicted to cappuccinos. I do decaf cappuccinos. I have one per day.”