Gov. Asa Hutchinson says surplus could be used for school safety, tax cuts
With Arkansas projected to have a budget surplus of $1.4 billion, Gov. Asa Hutchinson says he’d like to use some of that money to improve school safety and for tax cuts.
Meeting with reporters Thursday, Hutchinson said he would like to use about $50 million dollars to create block grants for districts to upgrade security measures. He added the formula that determines school funding needs to be reevaluated.
“What would have to be considered is whether security should be part of the formula for how much we give to each school district per student. If you put in a security factor there that would mean recurring additional funds for the school districts, whether they need to hire a school resource officer or other types of enhancements,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson explained the grant funding is one-time payments and most of the funding from the block grants would go toward improving technology, improving cameras and altering physical security for single-point entries. He added that funding for increased school resource officers would need to be done through the budget.
Three years ago, the Uvalde, Texas school district – where 19 elementary students and two teachers were killed – was awarded a similar grant to the one Hutchinson is proposing. Asked if he had any concerns that increased security measures aren’t always effective, Hutchinson replied every security plan is subject to human error. He also said it’s too early to make judgements on Uvalde since facts are still to be gathered.
The Arkansas Legislature will have to give approval for surplus funds to go toward such a grant program.
Arkansas School Safety Commission
Cheryl May, chair of the Arkansas School Safety Commission and director of the Criminal Justice Institute, said the commission spent nine months working on recommendations for the state to implement and will continue to.
“As the governor said we’ve never stopped working on these issues,” May said.
May cited the commission’s work in helping the state pass laws that increased the amount of time counselors spend with students, allowing school districts to form their own police departments and allowing audits of school safety plans.
Hutchinson said the commission will reconvene and he wants them to focus on audits that detail school safety plans.
“If there’s not the audits, the performance indicators and actual adoption of good policy then we’re going to have vulnerabilities as you’ve seen in Uvalde,” Hutchinson said.
In an interview with KUAR News earlier this week, May said the state needs a statewide reporting system to detect threats to avoid having a school shooting.
“Most school shooters tell somebody before they actually engage in the event they are proclaiming. Being able to identify those threats and evaluate them is important,” May said.
When asked if he would push the legislature to pass this recommendation, Hutchinson said he wants input from the commission and schools on the idea.
“Certainly you want to have a climate in which students or parents, when they see indications of mental illness or threats they are acted on quickly,” Hutchinson said.
Changes to gun laws
While looking at ways to make schools safer, Hutchinson said he isn’t considering any changes to the state’s gun laws.
“When you look at access to firearms in our society that is not going to change no matter what law we pass, and so our focus should be on school safety,” Hutchinson said.
During an appearance on CBS News, Hutchinson said lawmakers should be looking at raising the age limit to purchase AR-15 style weapons. The governor didn’t say if he wanted to raise the age limit to 21 from 18 in Arkansas.
“We have to do it smartly and work together and think it through as to whether it’ll make a difference and whether it is consistent with our 2nd Amendment liberties,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson, a former U.S Attorney, explained it is a challenge to raise the age limit, since the courts ruled California's attempt to increase the age limit for gun ownership as unconstitutional.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Arkansas ranks fifth in the nation in firearm deaths among children under the age of 17. The state also ranks eighth in total firearm deaths.
Hutchinson said the state also needs to cut taxes for Arkansans dealing with inflation. He says the legislature is trying to determine what items to consider before calling a session.
Hutchinson said there is a consensus on allowing the 2021 tax cuts to take effect sooner than planned.
“We can accelerate those tax cuts. If we did that, it would give immediate benefits to every Arkansas taxpayer,” Hutchinson said. “They [taxpayers] would be able to adjust their tax withholding tables quickly. There is a broader agreement on that particular outcome.”
At the end of last year, Arkansas lawmakers approved a plan to cut the top individual income tax from 5.9% to 4.9% by 2025. The plan also included a low-income tax credit.
Hutchinson said if lawmakers can agree on what needs to be done during a special session, July or August is when a session could be called. Hutchinson added more work needs to be done before he can commit to a special session.
American Rescue Plan Act funding
Arkansas has received its second batch of funds from the American Rescue Plan (ARPA), which was signed into law by President Joe Biden in 2021.
Scott Hardin, director of communications for the Department of Finance and Administration, said the state has received $787 million from the U.S Treasury last month. The state has received $1.57 billion overall from ARPA.
Hutchinson said he wants to use the funds from ARPA on broadband, infrastructure, workforce and education.
“We’re getting ready to present those plans on spending to the legislature for their review,” Hutchinson said.