In his second-to-last State of the State address, and final one in front of a general session, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson outlined his legislative goals which include addressing the current healthcare crisis, hate crimes legislation, teacher pay and supporting state police.
Speaking to members in the House on Tuesday, while the Senate joined digitally, Hutchinson said the legislature’s “first responsibility” should be addressing the current public health emergency brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
"The current emergency rules are in place until February 27th and prior to that date, you need to act. I trust you will both affirm the emergency and continue the emergency rules that have proven necessary during this healthcare crisis," Hutchinson said.
Some lawmakers have questioned the governor’s authority in making the emergency declaration and want more legislative oversight. In particular, some have objected to the state’s mask mandate.
According to Hutchinson, some of the coronavirus measures that need action from the legislature include telemedicine rules, education waivers, immunity liabilities for businesses and healthcare workers. The governor said if the legislature does not act on these policies, they will end once the emergency declaration expires.
Hutchinson also spoke on the need to again raise teacher pay, setting a goal of raising average teacher salaries by $2,000 over the next two years.
During the Democratic Party of Arkansas’ response to the State of the State, Party Chair Michael John Gray called for greater funding to Arkansas’ public education system in general, citing the problems with raising only teacher pay.
"In effect what he has done is put superintendents in a position where they cut their budgets. Teachers with higher levels of education or more years of experience are seeing their jobs fade away because their levels of salaries are too high to meet the schools’ budgets," Gray said.
Hutchinson spoke at length about the proposed hate crimes legislation, which he recently told reporters would be tougher than other initiatives to become law.
Hutchinson read from letters sent to him in support of the legislation and spoke on some of the pushback the bill has already garnered, including the criticism that it gives some Arkansans more protections than others.
"This legislation applies equally. If you are Hispanic and you are targeted, it applies. If you are Jewish, it applies, if you are Caucasian, it applies, or African American or any other race, it applies equally. It enhances the penalty for targeting regardless of the race that is targeted," Hutchinson said.
Currently, Arkansas is one of only three states without any form of hate crime legislation. In addition to race, the law would also provide enhanced penalties in offenses committed due to a person’s religion, gender identity, sexual orientation disability and other categories.
Hutchinson also spoke of the need for legislation that will aid Arkansas’ police officers so that they "have the highest standards, are fully trained, funded and supported."
Grey said that while Hutchinson also mentioned the need for laws concerning greater accountability and oversight for police, he didn’t go far enough.
"My mother and your mother may not have this fear, but mothers across the state have a fear that their child won’t come home because they have a broken taillight. So we need accountability, we need equality in treatment," Gray said.
Tax cuts are also on Hutchinson’s list of priorities for this session. He named both reducing the sales taxes on used cars and lowering the tax rate for new Arkansas residents as two specific actions he would like to see.
"If we can lower our tax rate for new residents to 4.9% for five years, then we will attract new Arkansans who will create jobs, spend money and pay taxes," Hutchinson said.
At the beginning of his speech, Hutchinson condemned the actions taken by pro-Trump extremists last Wednesday, forcing their way into the U.S. Capitol building in an attempted insurrection. Hutchinson also said that each person who breached the Capitol "must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."