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Hutchinson To Form Outside Political Group To Shape National GOP Policy, Candidates In 2022

Gov. Asa Hutchinson on this week's Talk Business & Politics.
Talk Business & Politics

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson may not have formally committed to a 2024 Presidential run, but he’s raising his profile to be a national voice in the 2022 cycle.

Hutchinson said Sunday in an exclusive Talk Business & Politics interview that beyond taking the reins as chairman of the National Governors Association (NGA) this summer, he plans to start a political action effort for education advocacy and to raise money for GOP candidates across the U.S. in the 2022 elections.

“2022 is a very, very important year for our country and for our party, and I want to be engaged in that debate. So when the legislative session is over with, I hope to set up a national leadership effort called ‘America Strong and Free,’ where I can help influence the direction of our country in 2022. We’ll see where that leads,” he said.

The two-term Republican governor said there will be an education advocacy arm to the “America Strong and Free” effort as well as a fundraising element to support candidates. Legal paperwork has not been filed yet, he said.

“There will be two parts of ‘America Strong and Free.’ One will be an educational branch that will help raise money, educate people on the principles and issues. Then, there will be a leadership PAC, part of it that will help in supporting the candidates, but also the national voice in terms of what I can do in 2022,” he said.

Hutchinson said the group, as well as his chairmanship of NGA, will focus on speaking up on big government issues at the state and national levels.

“I am concerned about what the future holds under the Biden administration. We’re spending too much money. We’re over-regulating, there’s a lot of pushback, and I think it’s important for me to be a balanced voice, but also an important voice in pushing back on that, but also shaping our party in a good way in 2022,” he said.

His comments squarely suggest he hopes to steer the national GOP in a different direction away from former President Donald Trump, who was recently critical of Hutchinson for vetoing a transgender restriction bill.

“I indicated that I wouldn’t support him in 2024. I don’t necessarily expect him to run, but I thought he did not handle and did not lead our country in the right direction post-election on January 6th. That’s part of speaking your mind and that’s part of him speaking his mind. I don’t get bent out of shape about that,” Hutchinson said of Trump’s criticism.

He added that he does not think Trump is the de facto head of the Republican Party.

“I wouldn’t consider him that at all. You can make a case that there’s many voices, and it’s traditional whenever we don’t have the White House. You have many different voices of leadership in the party. Governors are one. You’ve got Senate and House leadership on the Republican side,” he said.

“But President Trump has the largest megaphone now just because he has such an enormous following of support and voters. So he’s certainly a player. I pay attention to that. But there’s many voices in the party and I hope we have a good discussion of ideas and the future going into 2022,” Hutchinson added.

LEGISLATIVE SESSION

Hutchinson has had a much more successful legislative session than headlines would suggest. The governor discussed his achievements and letdowns during the Talk Business & Politics interview.

Hutchinson has signed new laws dealing with hate crimes, raising teacher pay, improving computer science requirements, and reforming law enforcement practices.

“In terms of my priorities, I’m very, very happy with what we’ve been able to accomplish in terms of raising teacher pay, our computer science initiative, our law enforcement efforts, but then also in terms of our budgets and tax cuts,” he said. “We’re working together very well and it’s going to be a very successful session on these points, and then you cap that off with passing what some people call a hate crimes bill, but that was one of my priorities. It was important for us to do that as a state, and I appreciate the leadership and the way they worked through that and got that passed. So I’m very pleased with those substantive issues coming out of this session.”

Hutchinson outlined moving money to long-term reserves, additional tax cuts, and money set aside for broadband expansion as other goals for this session. State legislators are poised to move money into long-term reserves before they adjourn, and there are several tax cut measures being debated in the final weeks of the session. The governor’s proposal to give a tax break to entice out-of-state residents to Arkansas never got off the ground, but a used car tax cut extension seems imminent and lawmakers passed a massive tax forgiveness bill for unemployment benefits.

Broadband funding is likely to come from new federal stimulus support or a possible infrastructure package that Congress has yet to vote on, and the governor believes Medicaid expansion funding will eventually get the three-fourths vote needed to pass.

While his policy goals are tangible, Hutchinson has spent a major portion of the session dealing with socially and culturally divisive bills ranging from transgender restrictions, abortion, guns, education, and religious freedoms.

“I think probably the disappointment would simply be in that we were not able to stay away from so many controversial bills that I think were probably unnecessary. But I don’t want to dwell on the negative here. I think it has been a good session. If I look at going back, what could we have done better? I think let’s let the dust settle before we actually determine that.”

Could he have done anything differently to stem the tide of controversial bills that have been the hallmark of this session?

“I don’t think there’s anything I could have done. The legislature was speaking their heart and what they believed was important. I think the fact that this is a very long session generated more bills, and some of those are controversial bills, so I think that is a factor in it. But these bills are passing with super majority votes,” he said.

Republicans control 27 of 35 seats in the State Senate and 78 of 100 seats in the Arkansas House.

“This is a conservative state. People and legislators and the public are frustrated with what they see come out of Washington. They just want to push back, and so the legislature is trying to push back. I don’t know that there’s anything that could be done to stop that other than dialogue. These bills come through quickly, and sometimes whenever it sits on my desk awhile, it’s a reminder we need to study these bills very carefully and that they can go too far,” he added.

Hutchinson said he has constitutional questions about a gun freedom bill on his desk, and he has signed other questionable bills knowing they may be challenged in the courts.

EXECUTIVE-LEGISLATIVE TENSION

Gov. Hutchinson said one of the big worries for many political observers heading into the 2021 session would center on executive and legislative relationships. Despite state lawmakers complaining about executive branch heavy-handedness due to the pandemic emergency, Hutchinson said he’s been pleased with the balance of power during the session.

“Everybody wondered about the relationship with the leadership and between the executive and legislative branch. Overall, it’s been very, very good, and I applaud Senator [Jimmy] Hickey and Speaker [Matthew] Shepherd that they’ve been good partners through this. There’s been a great line of communication,” he said.

During the current session, lawmakers have passed a law requiring the governor to consult with legislative leaders to maintain emergency powers under the pandemic; have attempted to move some executive powers under legislative authority; and are considering a constitutional amendment referral to allow the General Assembly to call itself into a special session – constitutionally, a power reserved for the governor.

“While I disagree with some of the efforts to diminish the executive branch, to lift up the legislative branch, while we have those disagreements, overall, we’ve worked together in a good partnership,” he said. “Now, I hope that it does not go to the ballot for a vote on a referred constitutional amendment that would allow the legislature to call themselves into session. Historically, we’ve had a part-time legislature that meets once every two years in regular session. This would convert it into really a full-time legislature.”

“Their perception is that the executive branch is very powerful and the legislative branch is not strong enough, and they want to strengthen that. Well, I think you’ve got to step back a little bit and understand that under our constitution, the governor has a lot of respect, but structurally the legislature has a lot of power, particularly with the purse strings,” he added.

Hutchinson did say he believes the Arkansas governor needs a stronger veto power. This session, he has vetoed two bills. One was sustained and one was overridden. The legislature can overturn a governor’s veto with a majority of votes in each chamber.

“I’ll be finished in another two years, but if you look down the road for governors, they need to have a more meaningful veto power in this state. I think the people of Arkansas would support that. But a simple majority to override a veto really weakens the effectiveness of that veto,” he said.

ARKANSAS SOVEREIGNTY ACT

Hutchinson expressed conern about a bill that gives state and local law enforcement the ability to not cooperate with federal law enforcement. He said that he’s reviewing SB 298, which is on his desk for signature or veto consideration.

The Arkansas Sovereignty Act of 2021, by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, and Rep. Brandt Smith, R-Jonesboro, restricts local or state law enforcement or public officials from enforcing or assisting federal agencies or officers “in the enforcement of any federal statute, executive order, or federal agency directive that conflicts with the Arkansas Constitution.”

The measure specifically addresses federal requirements to register or track firearms, any prohibition against possession or ownership of a firearm or accessory, or the confiscation of firearms or ammunition.

“All acts, laws, orders, rules, and regulations of the United States Government, whether past, present, or future, that infringe on the people’s right to keep and bear arms as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution and Arkansas Constitution, Article 2,§5, are invalid in this state, shall not be recognized by this state, are specifically rejected by this state, and shall be considered null and void and of no effect in this state,” the bill reads.

Hutchinson said the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution has determined that when there is a conflict between state and federal law, federal law prevails. The Arkansas bill ignores that legal precedent.

“I’ve got three bills coming to my desk that I’ll be looking at which are protecting the Second Amendment, but it does it in a way that restricts state law enforcement from cooperating with federal law enforcement. As a former head of the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency), as someone who has been a United States Attorney, and understands the importance of federal-state cooperation, that gives me heartburn. I’m going to have to look at those bills very carefully… This is a concern to me because I believe it is unconstitutional,” the governor said.

The bill passed the Senate on a 28-7 vote and the House by a 76-18 margin. The governor received the bill on Thursday and has five working days to consider if he will sign it. As of Friday afternoon, Hutchinson said he has not decided what his action will be.

“I struggle with the refusal of local law enforcement to cooperate with federal law enforcement,” Hutchinson added. “For example, I prosecuted the white supremacists, as you know in the 80’s, the CSA [The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord] – one of the most successful law enforcement operations in our state. And that was a combination of state resources and federal resources going after a neo-Nazi violent group. Guess what? They were going after them because they had machines guns in the compound and we were cooperating together. Under this bill, that would be prohibited.”

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