Less than a year into his second term, Gov. Asa Hutchinson has accomplished several of his priorities. During this year’s legislative session, his main four goals: an increase in teacher pay, the passage of the final part of his tax plan, funding for state highways and a transformation of Arkansas’s state government all made it through.
Another priority for Hutchinson is greater broadband access across the state for both schools and rural areas.
According to data from the nonprofit Education Superhighway, 100 percent of school districts in the state have access to internet speeds of 100 kilobits per second. Furthermore, Arkansas is the first to meet the Federal Communication Commission’s 2017-2018 school year goal of 1 megabit per second, per student.
Between this initiative, the establishment of the Arkansas State Broadband Office, and the recently announced Arkansas Rural Connect program, Hutchinson says access to faster internet will be on his agenda for the upcoming legislative session.
"I’m driving it. This is a high priority for me because I see it not just important for education and quality of life, but also for entrepreneurs, for job creation. In the recruiting industry, you’ve got to have that kind of internet infrastructure to woo those businesses that we want here in Arkansas," Hutchinson said.
In addition to the expansion of internet access to schools across the state, the establishment of other internet-focused programs places high-speed broadband access high on the governor’s to-do list.
This month, Hutchinson announced Arkansas Rural Connect, a $25 million grant program that will provide funds to qualifying rural communities of at least 500 people to establish high-speed broadband to its residents. He said the rural connect program will help residents access multiple online services.
"This helps every program, including Arkansas Works, that we want our citizens to be able to…register their vehicles. We want them to do as many services online as possible. Part of that is education, part of that is having the high-speed that they’re not frustrated whenever they go online to do them."
The online reporting system of the Arkansas Works program received criticism before the work requirement was ultimately struck down by a federal judge. Arkansas did add other ways to report hours including through a phone line or in person before the ruling. Hutchinson cited Lee County as an area that would benefit from higher internet speeds.
"They had very limited access to the internet and they would have to go into a DHS office or the library and so, this initiative will help areas like Lee County," Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson also discussed how Arkansas is doing months after historic flooding impacted cities and areas along the Arkansas River. Recovery efforts are still ongoing, with some state agencies looking at ways to prevent similar damage in the future.
This past July, Hutchinson announced the establishment of the Levee Task Force, which is charged with finding sources and requirements for funding the construction and repair of the state’s levees as well as other responsibilities. Hutchinson said he is impressed with the work the task force has achieved so far.
"They divided into subcommittees. One looking at recommendations for the General Assembly as to what we can do in additional laws that might be necessary to strengthen our levee boards, their organization their structure," Hutchinson said. "And then secondly, there’s a committee that looks at the levees themselves and where the breaches might be and where they’re weak and may need to be strengthened."
According to Hutchinson, the task force is required to deliver their final report by late fall, though they can release interim reports beforehand.
As far as how much the flooding impacted Arkansas on an economic basis, Hutchinson said the effect is greater than what "anybody would realize." He says the greatest damage, more than home or business damage, is the state’s infrastructure.
"The infrastructure is what is really hitting us both in terms of highways, bridges, but the port system itself is what’s costing us to get that back in line," Hutchinson said.
The flood waters have also impacted farmers, with many delaying their planting or deciding to switch crops. Another factor affecting farmers is the ongoing trade war between the United States and China.
For the second year in a row, the USDA is providing monetary compensation to qualifying farmers through the Market Facilitation Program. This year the program’s payments are based on acres planted in 2019. The window for Arkansas farmers to apply for the Market Facilitation Program lasts until December 6.
Hutchinson has spoken previously on the trade war’s negative impact on Arkansas, saying the United States is positioning itself "for a long-drawn-out trade war with China and not a quick resolution." Speaking with KUAR, Hutchinson says the U.S. and China’s intertwined economies make the situation complicated.
"We absolutely need to be tougher. We need to negotiate a better trading relationship with China. But at the same time we cannot disengage complete from that very strong economy that is of benefit to our consumers here in the United States," Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson says while farmers would rather sell their products as opposed to receiving federal payments, they need to be open to making adjustments like selling to other markets such as Japan.