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story.lead_photo.caption Gov. Asa Hutchinson (right) is shown in this file photo with DHS Director Cindy Gillespie. - Photo by Staton Breidenthal

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Wednesday that this year's regular legislative session is the "greatest of all time" in Arkansas and he challenged historians to rebut his claim if they think a previous session enacted more transformative legislation.

Afterward, three political scientists had three divergent takes on Hutchinson's assessment.

Speaking before more than 200 people attending the Arkansas Bankers Association's annual convention in Little Rock, Hutchinson said Board of Correction member Bobby Glover, who is a former Democratic state senator from Carlisle, told him that "this is the most aggressive agenda and the most successful session that he can remember in his lifetime." (Glover confirmed his remarks to the governor afterward.)

"Now, we know about sports and there is always the debate going on about who is the GOAT, who is the greatest of all time" in basketball, football or another sport, the Republican governor said.

"I think I would make the claim that this last legislative session was the GOAT ... the greatest of all time," he said.

"Now, I say that because I think we did have a very aggressive agenda and we accomplished so much. But it is also a little bit of a challenge for those that are historians [to] come tell me a session of the Legislature that did as much and had as incredible transformative pieces of legislation that will impact our state for generations to come, so educate me if you want to challenge that claim," he said.

The session started Jan. 14 and recessed April 10. Lawmakers are slated to reconvene to permanently adjourn Wednesday. Regular sessions are held every odd-numbered year.

Hutchinson said this year's Legislature enacted his "four big priorities, the four T's," that included:

• Increasing the minimum teacher salary by $4,000 to $36,000 a year over four years. It's Act 170.

• Cutting the state's top individual income tax rate from 6.9 percent to 5.9 percent over a two-year period starting Jan. 1 of next year, which state officials project will reduce state tax revenue by about $97 million a year after it's fully implemented. It's Act 182.

• Reducing the number of state agencies reporting to him from 42 to 15. It's Act 910 and becomes effective July 1. It represents the most significant reorganization of state government since then-Gov. Dale Bumpers, a Democrat, led an effort to reduce the number of agencies from 60 to 13 departments under Act 38 of 1971.

• Raising $95 million a year for state highways by imposing a wholesale sales tax on gas and diesel; raising registration fees for electric and hybrid vehicles, effective Oct. 1; and reallocating a minimum of $35 million a year in state funds, including casino tax revenues. It's Act 416, which also is projected by state officials to raise $13 million a year apiece for cities and counties.

Also, voters in the 2020 general election will be asked to approve the Legislature's proposed constitutional amendment to permanently extend the half-percent sales tax for highways that was originally approved in 2012 for a 10-year period. State officials project that half-percent sales tax would raise $205 million a year for highways and $44 million a year apiece for cities and counties. Act 416 and the half-percent sales tax would raise a total $300 million a year for highways, the governor said.

"I am here today to ask you to plan in advance on helping us to get that half-cent sales tax extension [approved by voters], so we can finish the job on that comprehensive highway funding plan that we started this year," Hutchinson told the bankers.

The governor also said he and lawmakers authorized providing the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences funding of $10 million a year to assist its bid for a National Cancer Institute designation.

Lawmakers also approved more community-based support for juvenile offenders and to have an independently uniform assessment of youthful offenders to give guidance to judges in their cases.

The Legislature also made changes to fund 911 systems more efficiently; increased the homestead property tax credit by $25 to $375 per parcel; provided $8.2 million to help counties purchase new voting equipment, and diverted excess funds in the property tax relief trust fund, financed by a half-percent sales tax, to the long-term reserve fund that has more than $125 million, Hutchinson said.

Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College, said it's too early to determine whether this year's regular session ranks as the greatest of all time because the long-term ramifications of the actions need to be weighed.

Bumpers and then-Gov. Mike Beebe, also a Democrat, also had "monster sessions" in 1971 and 2007, respectively, he said.

Barth said Hutchinson "is right to brag" about this year's session because it's rare for a governor in his second term to accomplish what he did. Hutchinson has served as governor since January 2015 and was re-elected in November. His term is four years.

Art English, a retired political science professor from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said he disagreed with Hutchinson's assessment.

"No, I don't think it was the greatest session ever," he said.

Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee worked with then-Sen. Beebe to create the ARKids First program and later helped persuade the Legislature to consolidate school districts with fewer than 350 students, English said.

Beebe as governor also had good sessions in which the Legislature agreed to incrementally reduce the state's sales tax on groceries, English said.

Asked about Hutchinson's assessment, Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, said, "I would say it is an impossible thing to measure.

"A social scientist would tell you there is no universal criteria to compare one session to the other," she said. "There is no question it was quite a productive session in terms of meeting the stated goals of the popularly elected chief executive."

Asked about Hutchinson's assessment of this year's regular session, Senate Democratic leader Keith Ingram of West Memphis said, "I would just leave it to somebody else to make that observation."

He said he would allow the state's historians to cast their judgment on where this year's regular session ranks.

"The governor had a very successful session. There is no question about it," Ingram said in an interview.

Metro on 04/18/2019

Print Headline: 2019 legislative session was ‘greatest of all time,’ Arkansas governor says

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