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Governor Seeks Quick Marijuana Appeal; Says Trump ‘Winning’ On Trade

Gov. Asa Hutchinson talking with reporters in his office at the state Capitol.
Michael Hibblen

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has asked the Arkansas Supreme Court to expedite an appeal of a judge’s order blocking the issuance of medical marijuana cultivation licenses. He also said Monday that President Donald Trump is ”winning on better trade deals for America” but cautioned against engaging in a trade war with China.

Speaking to reporters in his office Monday, Hutchinson said the state has no choice but to wait for the Supreme Court regarding medical marijuana cultivation licenses.

“I’ve looked for options as to how we proceed,” he said. “Every option that we have to proceed for the issuance of license brings you right back into court.”

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen halted the issuance of licenses to five marijuana cultivators after spurned operations called into question the application process. Among their complaints were the personal and professional relationships two commissioners have with winning applicants. Successful applicants have announced they are appealing Griffen’s decision to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Hutchinson said he had expected losing applicants to file suit, but he didn’t expect the courts to prevent the licenses from being issued.

“He first said, ‘You can’t proceed. You’re enjoined from issuing the licenses.’ And then amended it that this is not an appealable order,” he said. “And then also said that, ‘I’m going to keep an eye on it and keep control over this and make sure the Marijuana Commission issues the licenses the way that I like it. That is an overly engaged judiciary that is trying to oversee all the details about an executive branch function.”

Hutchinson, who opposed the amendment before it was passed in 2016, said he has spoken with the Department of Finance and Administration, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, and the chairman of the Medical Marijuana Commission.

“There’s obviously frustration that’s out there, that we in the administration worked hard to implement the will of the people in the Medical Marijuana Amendment,” he said, adding that “the will of the voters is really being frustrated right now.”

In other news, Hutchinson offered measured praise for President Donald Trump’s efforts on foreign trade, saying, “He’s pulled rabbits out of a hat before in terms of his negotiation.” Hutchinson said the North American Free Trade Agreement could become an improved deal for the United States, and that China has made some concessions on trade.

However, Hutchinson warned of potential dangers if Trump’s actions lead to a trade war. China has retaliated against U.S. tariffs by raising tariffs of its own against American soybean exports. He said agriculture is always the first victim when a trade war occurs.

“He’s winning on better trade deals for America,” Hutchinson said. “In the end, we’ve got to have that continued trade, and we have to avoid a trade war that does raise those barriers for our exports of agricultural commodities. It’s a very serious issue for Arkansas farmers.”

He later added, “It’s brinksmanship right now, but I’d just as soon both sides come back from the brink.”

Hutchinson also said he has dedicated $600,000 in rainy day funds to keep the state’s drug task forces open until June 30. The money is needed because the federal Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program has been placed on hold while the program is tied up in a court case. The case is a result of the Department of Justice’s decision to withhold grants from state and local governments for so-called “sanctuary cities,” which limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

“We don’t have sanctuary cities in Arkansas, so we shouldn’t be paying a price for what’s happening in California,” he said. “Penalize California. Don’t penalize Arkansas.”

Hutchinson said he would talk to U.S. Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., about passing legislation to address the impasse. If the dispute isn’t resolved by June 30, further use of rainy day funds would be the “first option” for funding, Hutchinson said. However, he said rainy day funds are not a long-term fix.

“I’m committed to making sure our drug task forces stay operational beyond June 30,” he said. “Hopefully it will be through the Byrne grant funding that will be turned loose, but if not we’ve got to keep them operational.”

Hutchinson said he will ask legislators during the 2019 session to increase the homestead property tax exemption to $375 from its current $350. The exemption was originally set at $300 by Amendment 79, but the amount can be increased by statute.

Hutchinson said the fund that reimburses the counties for their losses from the exemption has grown from $28 million in 2012 to $78.6 million today. The change will require an $18 million additional payment from the Property Tax Relief Trust Fund, according to the Department of Finance and Administration. Hutchinson said DFA has assured him the current fund is sufficient to increase the exemption. No general revenue funds will be needed.

Hutchinson’s Republican Party primary opponent, Jan Morgan, has accused the governor of growing state government. Hutchinson acknowledged that some state expenditures have grown, including an increase in spending for higher education, a $50 million prison, and an increase in K-12 education that the courts have ruled is constitutionally mandated.

“So yes, we have funded those legitimate needs for education and public safety, and normal increases that are true in health care,” he said. “So if you look at it honestly, there has been an increase in spending in some areas of state government, but I don’t know that anybody disagrees with that investment in education or public safety.”

At the same time, the number of employees in state agencies reporting to him has shrunk by 1,000. He said the reduction had reduced the size of government and increased efficiency.

Following are other notes from Monday’s meeting with reporters.
• Hutchinson said he hoped the Arkansas Supreme Court upholds the state Plant Board’s ban on the use of the weed killer dicamba. He said the Plant Board’s ban was developed by a task force after hearings and a review. His office and the Legislature also reviewed and accepted the Plant Board’s decision.

• He said he opposed a voter-initiated effort to raise the minimum wage to $11 an hour via a constitutional amendment. He said a constitutional amendment would lack flexibility and that any increases to the minimum wage should occur through legislative action. Raising the wage too much could cost jobs, he said.

• Hutchinson said the Arkansas School Safety Commission, which he appointed to address security issues, has been “very impressive.”  

Steve Brawner is a freelance journalist and contributor to Talk Business & Politics.
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