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Analyst: Legislative session provided Hutchinson a 'victory lap' as eyeing presidential bid

Asa Hutchinson governor
Michael Hibblen
Governor-elect Asa Hutchinson speaking to legislators on Jan. 6, 2015 before being sworn into office later that month.

This week’s special session of the Arkansas Legislature included what is expected to be the last time Gov. Asa Hutchinson signs any state legislation into law. During a bill signing ceremony on Thursday, he called it a “historical day” as the state’s top individual tax rate falls to 4.9%, the lowest since being implemented in 1929.

Dr. Heather Yates, a political science professor at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, said it puts Hutchinson in a good position as he is considering a run for president of the United States.

“This most definitely helps prop up his legacy on the classic conservative Republican agenda with tax cuts,” Yates said. “This really positions him well to appeal to national donors and really take the victory lap that he left the state with a surplus, the surplus that was able to fund such tax cuts. That's going to play very well for him should he make a national run.

Hutchinson convened lawmakers to consider accelerating tax cuts that had been approved last year using the $1.6 billion budget surplus from the fiscal year that ended in June. The Republican easily won approval from the majority-Republican legislature.

Hutchinson is term-limited from running again for governor, with his second term ending in January. He previously represented Arkansas’ 3rd district in the U.S. House of Representatives, then served under President George W. Bush as administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, then led a division of the Department of Homeland Security which was created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

Hutchinson has said his party needs to move on from former President Donald Trump, which has built opposition from some in that wing of the Republican Party. Hutchinson said earlier this month that he will announce in November whether he will run for president. Trump has signaled lately that he will again make a bid for the White House.

Below is a transcript of the interview with Dr. Heather Yates that was broadcast on KUAR.

So, what was your takeaway from this session? It was quick. Governor Asa Hutchinson essentially got exactly what was on his call.

It was short and to the point. And what's notable about this special session is not so much what the legislature accomplished, but what they did not address, and that was, of course, the teacher pay issue, which was highly visible with teachers, K-12 and pre-K, lining the Capitol steps to apply pressure to the legislature.

So, this was unfortunately a real missed opportunity because the governor had also expressed, or either virtue signaled the importance of teacher pay, but came to the realization that there was not enough support among the Republican contingency in the legislature to give it a serious go this special session.

I had asked [Hutchinson] about this after his bill signing ceremony on Thursday. He said that while he would have liked to have addressed it, said he has to work with lawmakers as partners [during the session], but there wasn't support. [Hutchinson] said it makes sense to wait for the results of an adequacy study that's underway. But this comes at a time when a lot of teachers are leaving the profession.

And this is the sticking point that you hit on, the legislative adequacy study that was initiated in January and [was] the motivator behind a lot of the resistance that the Republicans didn't want to take it up. And you're exactly right, with the large number of teachers leaving the profession, it makes it incredibly hard for Arkansas to recruit K-12 teachers within the state and to the state when Arkansas ranks among the bottom in teacher pay and hovers in the lower tear on public education expense per student in the state.

So, when I say a missed opportunity, you know, this is also an election cycle. This was an opportunity to also tell teachers that the legislature does care about their livelihood, does care about funding public education, but it’s really getting hung up on this technicality of wanting to conclude an adequate study when, by the legislative committees’ own calendar, they were taking up the examination of teacher pay as early as April this spring. So, they have a task to square the math with teachers going into the fall.

The governor called the tax cuts a historic occasion. He said that during his inaugural address he prioritized cutting income taxes and this now goes to the lowest rate in state history since the state income tax was first introduced in 1929. I was struck by the fact that this is coming at the end of the governor's term in office. He was asked if there will be any more special sessions and he does not think that will happen. So, this was likely the last time he will sign anything into law.

Any thoughts from you here as Hutchinson nears the end of his time in office.

For the governor wrapping up his tenure in office, this was going to be a bitter, sweet moment, right? Concluding the special session that he called. It's also a victory lap because he got what he wanted out of the legislative session as well, both the tax credits and also the School Safety Commission [funding] recommendations, and so it's an opportunity for him to take that victory lap.

He also has his sights set on new career evolution beyond Arkansas, and so this helps set up that legacy. And so, I’m sure for him he had some bittersweet moments that this was his last executive signing of legislation as governor. But he's also got an eye looking forward to the future and there's a lot of dynamic changing in Arkansas and this legislative session really captured the shift of dynamics because in addition to Asa Hutchinson leaving, we also have a handful of legislators who are departing the Capital and so it was bittersweet, I'm sure, for some. They might be happy that they are vacating, but they've got their eyes on the future. So yeah, we are now moving into the next chapter.

And of course, the governor has said he is considering a run for president. This sets him in a good position where, if he were to make a run, he could make the case that “I was successful governor in Arkansas.”

This most definitely helps prop up his legacy on the classic conservative Republican agenda with tax cuts, and it's how he targeted the tax cuts in the state. This really positions him well to appeal to national donors and really take the victory lap that he left the state with a surplus – the surplus that was able to fund such tax cuts. That's going to play very well for him should he make a national run.

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.