Governor Conferred With Legislative Leaders Before Speech; Wants Faster FDA Action

Gov. Asa Hutchinson is asking Arkansas legislators to meet as a Committee of the Whole to “support and affirm” the current public emergency declaration.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

During a primetime television address delivered Thursday night, Gov. Asa Hutchinson reiterated many of the talking points he has been making for months. In a post-speech interview with Talk Business & Politics, Hutchinson expounded on what he hoped to accomplish in the speech, why he’s seeking more legislative input, what is frustrating him with the federal response, and how he’ll handle the potential for rising cases after the Christmas holidays.

The following transcript is a Q&A with Talk Business & Politics' Roby Brock.

TB&P: What did you hope the headline would be from your prime time address?

Gov. Hutchinson: It would be about hope and inspiration. Even though there’s some news in there, the message is the same as we’ve had consistently, but I hope the headline is that ‘Governor encourages Arkansas to avoid a triple surge, and here’s how you do it.’ I think it was designed to be hopeful and not negative, and to encourage the people of Arkansas, and to give them hope the vaccine is going to be here. We’ve just got to get to that point.

Susan and I are committed to doing the vaccine, and we want to encourage people. We’ve got to increase that participation rate. Secondly, I know it’s esoteric to most of the public, but it was still very significant that I asked the legislature to support the current emergency declaration. That’s certainly a news item, but I think that gives the legislature an opportunity to show the people in Arkansas that we’re all on the same team and that we all see this as an emergency that we have to deal with. And so, I think that was an important step in the speech as well.

TB&P: When do you think you might ask the legislature to come together for that committee of the whole?

Gov. Hutchinson: We’ll see, that’s important to know. See, this is something that it’s up to them. They can do it at any time that’s convenient to them, so they can call a meeting of the committee as a whole, and they could do it virtually. They can do it in person. Just like they have the authority under the law that gave me emergency powers, it is subject to their meeting as a committee, as a whole in changing it.

So, they’ve always had that authority. I’m just putting the call on them. I’m saying it in a positive sense that join me in declaring this an emergency and recognizing that, so they can really set the date. I’ve given them to December 30th to do it, which presumably would be fairly quickly because they don’t want to wait until later on, but they can meet. They either have to continue to support me in continuing the emergency, or they have to go a different direction. Obviously in this environment, I have to think that they will support the continuation of the emergency.

TB&P: So have you spoken to some legislative leadership about that, and does any of it play into legislative strategy for you? Is this isolated on just being about supporting you on these emergency powers?

Gov. Hutchinson: I did, I met with Senate pro tempore-elect [Jimmy] Hickey and Speaker of the House [Matthew Shepherd]. Then I called the current Senate pro tempore [Jim Hendren]. So I just called the direct leadership, let them know, I actually read them the language that was going to be in the speech, so they would be aware of it. They understood because this is what many of the legislators would call them for Day One: ‘We should be part of that decision-making.’ That’s the authority that they believe they have.

And so, it’s going to be a fight in January or not a fight necessarily, it’s going to be a debate in January, so I wanted to let them take a look at it now, and I think it will be helpful to set the stage now as we look into further discussions on this in January.

TB&P: President-elect Joe Biden has proposed a 100-day mask mandate. He says he’s going to do that in his first 100 days in office. Do you think that will make a difference nationally?

Gov. Hutchinson: He only has authority at federal installations. And so, that’s good leadership that he calls for that 100 days. That’s very likely that we’ll need to continue to wear masks for that period of time. So, we need some strong messaging nationally about wearing a mask. It just can’t be in terms of a federal mandate, which doesn’t work. It’s up to the states to do that and to manage that. I think we’re doing it, so I think in Arkansas we’ve made the progress on the masks that makes the most difference, but I think it allows us to have a more consistent national message.

TB&P: Is there something else at the federal level that is not happening that you think should be happening that would be an improvement? Something that would make it better, or easier for you to do your job in this pandemic?

Gov. Hutchinson: Quite frankly, I was disappointed that the FDA did not immediately sign off on the recommendation of the advisory committee. It sounds like they’re waiting until Saturday to do it. That puzzles me, but I mean, that’s two days of additional delay in getting the vaccine out. So, I want them to move expeditiously on that. They’ve got to do it in a way that builds confidence, but at the same time, they’ve had the same materials the advisory committee has reviewed for some time now. And so, we’re anxious for that.

Secondly, there’s got to be just a really good handoff on the vaccine distribution with the Biden administration. I need them to work together closely on that. There’s a lot of untested things. I think we have a good plan, but until you start executing on it, there’s a lot that’s unknown.

Congress needs to immediately agree upon the next round of support for helping the states financially to get through this, which is everything from education, but it’s also our individual businesses and our unemployed. So, hopefully they will act. Those are the most important things right now.

TB&P: You’re getting a lot of criticism for not going further tonight… With the Christmas holiday season, it is either going to get better or it is either going to get worse. We’re unlikely to see things stay the same. Obviously, if things get better, that’s a positive. If things do get worse, what additional measures might you have to consider? What if we get twice as bad off as we are at this present time?

Gov. Hutchinson: It all depends upon the hospitals and the situation that they’re in. It also depends upon the data and information that we’re getting as to where the cases are coming from, which is really a little bit challenging, but I’ve been very encouraged by the hospitals. We’re improving our therapeutics. We are improving our movement of people through the hospital. So that we can free up bed space.

I’m encouraged with the coordination effort that we have in place. I’m hopeful that we can manage that well, and it gives us a little bit of extra rope as we go through Christmas. I’m actually more encouraged in the last couple of days. If we can stick with some discipline through the Christmas season, I think we can make it under. That’s my hope.

TB&P: I know you’re eternally optimistic, but we haven’t done a very good job with self-discipline over Thanksgiving. What makes you think we will do better at Christmas?

Gov. Hutchinson: I think Christmas is going to be challenging, but you’re presenting it sort of like an either/or that if we don’t do well, then what’s going to be the response and what steps do we need to take. That’s the challenge that we’re in that there’s nothing we can do other than encouragement and admonition about what happens in the home environment and what happens in group settings that are out there that we can’t touch.

So, I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see, but it’s difficult to see what action can be taken. You look at other states – every state that had the toughest restrictions through Thanksgiving and beyond that – every state is having a surge in cases. And so, that’s part of the challenge of seeing where government restrictions right now beyond what we have is the answer. I think we’re approaching it the right way and I am hopeful that will work.