TALK BUSINESS AND POLITICS -- Gov. Asa Hutchinson is meeting with legislative leaders about a special session, perhaps in July or August, to cut taxes and consider school security measures. The governor made his comments in a press conference with reporters Thursday (June 2) at the Capitol.
The governor said he had met that day with legislative leaders about cutting taxes because of the rising costs of food and fuel. Hutchinson made his comments on the same day that state officials projected a $1.473 billion surplus for the fiscal year, which ends June 30.
The governor said lawmakers are trying to arrive at a consensus on a potential tax cut, but he would support accelerating already planned tax cuts because of the surplus.
“It could be July, August, if we arrive at a consensus on what needs to be done, but we still have some work to do before I’ll commit to a special session for sure, but clearly there is a need for one,” he said.
Part of the surplus should be used for school safety efforts – perhaps as part of a one-time grant program. Hutchinson said the amount should be “meaningful.”
“I would think a healthy grant program would be in the neighborhood of $50 million,” he said.
Hutchinson said school security perhaps should become part of the per-pupil school funding formula so the money would be recurring. The school funding formula is a legislative responsibility.
Hutchinson said he had spoken to some of the leaders in the U.S. Senate about their bipartisan effort to strengthen federal law regarding background checks. He said the efforts are genuine and senators are looking for common ground. He said he would not consider such legislation for Arkansas. The governor’s comments came nine days after an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas. He said he was reactivating the Arkansas School Safety Commission, which he formed in 2018 following the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
That commission, chaired by Dr. Cheryl May, created a report whose 30 recommendations largely have been enacted, Hutchinson said. The recommendations included increasing school counseling, improving physical security, prevention efforts, and increasing an armed presence in schools. Hutchinson said he was asking May to reconvene the commission for a quick review. The commission could look at a statewide network to report potential threats and cases of mental illness so authorities can act on them before there’s a shooting.
Asked about reducing access to guns, Hutchinson said the focus should be on school safety.
“What I’ve said is in reference to AR-15-style weapons, that there can be an honest conversation as to whether that should be accessed by those 18, and whether the age limit should be lifted to 21,” he said.
He noted that California had passed a law that was struck down by the courts as unconstitutional.
“What we do, we have to do smartly, and we have to do working together, and thinking it through as to whether it will make a difference, and whether it’s consistent with our 2nd Amendment liberties,” he said. “And so that’s a conversation that we should have, but what we are together on is simply school safety, and that’s our first responsibility.”
The governor said the facts are still coming out about what happened in Uvalde, and those facts will aid policymakers in making decisions. He said an armed presence at schools can be a deterrent to gunmen.
Part of the tax surplus could be used for a new state Crime Lab, a new building at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and teacher salary increases. He said he will look at the entire budget picture in relation to the uncertainty of the economy.
Arkansas has received its second $786.6 billion installment from the federal American Rescue Plan that was passed to help states respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The governor said he would like to use the money for broadband, water infrastructure projects, and workforce education.
Asked about his potential run for president in 2024, Hutchinson said, “Obviously there’s a lot of talk about that. We take it a step at a time. Everybody in Arkansas needs to know this is my first commitment, but we are doing some testing the waters, because I’m concerned about the direction of our country, the issues that impact our families, and I believe some conservative leadership that is also common sense is important.”