FAYETTEVILLE -- Fort Smith and Eureka Springs should go in the 3rd Congressional District along with Madison County, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Friday.
"It's a legislative decision, but I do get to approve it," he said of congressional district boundaries. The Legislature convenes next week to draw those lines, based on 2020 U.S. census information. The four districts must be close to equal in population to comply with federal law. The 3rd District includes Northwest Arkansas.
Hutchinson served three terms as the 3rd District's U.S. House member. He comes from Benton County, but spent much of his career as a lawyer, including his time as a U.S. attorney, in Fort Smith.
"The district should continue to have Fort Smith as a part of it," Hutchinson told a Friday meeting of the NWA Political Animals Club. Friday's meeting of at least 100 attendees was the group's first in a year and a half. The meetings stopped until Friday because of the covid pandemic.
Northwest Arkansans helped successful efforts to get Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith picked as a base for up to 36 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning IIs and General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft, Hutchinson said. The pick is expected to bring more than 800 pilots, support workers and dependents to the area, according to military estimates. Such cooperation is vital to the region, he said.
A district including Fort Smith in Sebastian County, Eureka Springs in Carroll County and moving Madison County back to the 3rd from south Arkansas' 4th District can "be done numbers-wise," Hutchinson said.
A district including all of Benton, Crawford, Carroll, Madison, Sebastian, and Washington would far exceed the 753,439-person target size for equal congressional districts, census figures show. Hutchinson said after his speech he is aware a district including Fort Smith, Eureka Springs and Madison County would require splitting some counties.
"I chose my words carefully," he said.
He also noted that five counties are split in congressional district maps now.
The Legislature will set congressional boundaries, but the state Board of Apportionment will redraw legislative district boundaries for the state's 35 Senate and 100 House districts. Hutchinson, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and Secretary of State John Thurston make up that board.
The board's staff hopes to have maps prepared for public view by mid-to-late October, Hutchinson told the group. A public comment period of 30 days will follow before the board makes a final decision, he said.
The needed information from the U.S. Census Bureau to draw legislative districts was held up most of the year because of the covid pandemic and successful legal challenges to the previous administration's repeated attempts to include a citizenship question in the tally. Figures only became available in September. Previous census figures were available in March or April.
In other topics in his speech, Hutchinson publicly thanks Canopy Northwest Arkansas, an immigrant relocation group, for its role in helping 49 Afghan refugees coming to Northwest Arkansas. Another 49 will go to central Arkansas.
"I want to give my thanks to Canopy Northwest Arkansas, who represent the very best of your community and your churches," he told the group in one of his first remarks in his speech. He also praised the region's medical community for its response throughout the ongoing covid pandemic.
A spokeswoman for Canopy called the governor an "invaluable partner" in efforts to settle the refugees coming to Northwest Arkansas and thanked him for his remarks.
The part of Hutchinson's talk that received the most applause and praise by audience members interviewed afterwards was his call for more civility in national politics. He said he would do what he could to help "common sense conservative candidates" who would work to solve problems rather than pick partisan fights both now and after his term as governor ends. He is serving his second term and is ineligible to run for reelection in 2022.
"I loved hearing him talk about more civility in politics," said Kelly Krout of Lowell, a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor.
State Sen. Lance Eads, R-Springdale, said he was glad to hear the governor talk in the speech about key issues necessary for the economic development of the state, such as Hutchinson's intent to ask for another $250 million in spending to extend high-speed internet service to rural areas.
"We have the schools connected to high-speed broadband, but too many of those students lose that when they go home," Hutchinson said.
An audience member asked about Hutchinson's political plans during the question-and-answer period after the speech. He did not name any office but said he was "very concerned about the direction of the country and my party as well."