A midst a sea of masked legislators, Gov. Asa Hutchinson addressed the 92nd General Assembly, which opened its biennial fiscal session on Wednesday in Little Rock.
It was quite a sight and sign of the times that the address was given in a State Senate chamber at the state capitol where lawmakers were keeping a safe social distance from one another with some senators seated in the public gallery a level above the Senate floor. The Arkansas House, which was seated at the Jack Stephens Center at University of Arkansas at Little Rock, watched the governor’s address via live-stream. Lawmakers were wearing facial masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The normally crowded state capitol, which would be brimming with lobbyists, political activists and families of legislators, was as quiet as a non-session afternoon.
Hutchinson gave a pep talk sprinkled with realism about the pandemic that has threatened public health, closed schools and partially paralyzed the state’s economy.
“We have learned through this public health emergency about how fragile life can be, but we have also seen courage and compassion of Arkansans in action,” Hutchinson said. “Our foundations are strong, not shaken, the infrastructure above maybe a little bit. There are businesses waiting to come here or expand. We are not slowing down, we are just pausing out of necessity.”
Lawmakers are expected to meet for about 10 days in order to pass a budget that will carry the state through the next fiscal year, which begins on July 1. The Joint Budget Committee will meet for the next few days, possibly into Saturday, to push budget bills through for both chambers to take up next week.
Hutchinson originally proposed a $5.89 billion balanced budget, but he has since revised that number by $205 million.
“I need your help to trim it as a result of the revised forecast,” he said.
Hutchinson said priorities should include funding for public education, public safety and Medicaid – three areas of the state budget that account for a little more than 90% of state spending. Hutchinson said he was recommending revisions to state agency budgets that include budget cuts, travel reductions and other areas to incorporate efficiencies. The governor also said he was pleased a $152 million long-term reserve fund still remained intact “for whatever may come.”
“We may make mistakes, but make no mistake – our eyes are fixed on our next opportunity, our next challenge, and our next future victories,” he said toward the end of his 20-minute speech.
“We know how to survive. We relish our independence and we care for each other. Those are the qualities that will take us through our current crisis in our nation,” Hutchinson said. “We will be strong and we will prevail.”