by Caleb Talley
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson is just days away from the primary election, but you wouldn’t tell it. The first-term incumbent is calm, cool and collected inside the office of his campaign headquarters in downtown Little Rock.
On Tuesday, Hutchinson hopes to stave off an upset from within his own party. Polling suggests he’ll be just fine. But as any student of the 2016 presidential election knows: don’t count your chickens before they hatch.
Hutchinson has an advantage. He’s governor. His primary opponent, Jan Morgan, wants to be. And he’s letting his record do the talking.
“In politics, you’re graded on whether or not you keep your promises, if you do what you campaigned on, what you said you were going to do,” says Hutchinson, just minutes after wrapping up a weekend campaign planning meeting with his team. “In that regard, you have to give us an A or an A+, because we had three principle objectives. One was the $100 million income tax cut. We promised computer coding in every high school. And I said I want to be the jobs governor. In all of those, we’ve a fulfilled and exceeded expectations in what we promised.”
When asked which accomplishment he’s most proud of, the governor points to his computer science education initiatives. Hutchinson made it one of his key campaign promises in 2014. And in 2015, Arkansas became the first state to pass a comprehensive law requiring all public and charter high schools to offer computer science courses.
“When you can go from having fewer than 20 teachers in Arkansas that can teach computer science, and having actually no program in computer science, we soared to leading the nation in computer science education,” he says. “That has to be one of the most gratifying and important success stories of the first term. And it has really changed individuals’ lives and opportunities. And that, to me, is the gratifying thing about a public service.”
Over the last few months, Hutchinson has been the target of attacks from Morgan and her supporters for claims that he is not conservative enough. When asked if he isn’t, Hutchinson laughs, “The public knows better.”
“It’s pretty comical the charges she has leveled over the last year. But I’m not worried about it. People know me. They’ve known me and known me ever since Ronald Reagan appointed United States Attorney. They know my conservative record from Congress, to the administration, to governor.”
A key criticism levied against the Arkansas governor by Morgan has been his alleged propensity to spend. State spending, he says, has increased, but not without good reason.
“You have to look at that more deeply,” Hutchinson says. “Yes, we’ve had pay increases for our teachers. That costs more money, but it’s money that’s well spent. It’s an investment in education and teachers. Contrast where we are in Arkansas with where they’ve been in Oklahoma and Arizona with teachers on strikes.
“That’s money that’s well spent,” he adds. “When it comes to public safety, we had to put $50 million in increased prison space. We’ve increased our reimbursement to the county jails. All of these are things we absolutely needed to do and reflects a growing state.”
Hutchinson says that Morgan has failed to mention, when discussing spending, that his administration has grown at a slower pace than most administrations in the past. It should also be noted that only three administrations since Reconstruction have been Republican.
“We spend our money wisely, conservatively,” says Hutchinson. “And with all of that, we had $150 million in income tax cuts… And one of the conservative things that we did was not only having income tax cuts, but also in the ways that we budgeted. We now have $120 million in a long-term reserve fund.”
An additional $64 million in surplus, he says, is being budgeted for 2019.
The governor wastes no time in outlining the key differences between him and his primary opponent. “I actually have a plan for the future,” he says, enthusiastically.
“I’ve been very clear,” he says, “as to how we’re going to lower our income tax rate in Arkansas. I’ve been very clear as to what we need to do in education, with a specific plan, job skill training. And, also, my initiative for transforming state government in which I’ve held open town hall meetings across Arkansas. There’s a very specific agenda, and those are just a couple of the items that we want to accomplish in a second term. It’s a very clear plan that I’ve laid out for Arkansas to continue its growth, competitive income tax rates and to transform government.”
Hutchinson is also proud of his work help maintain, and also reform, the state’s hybrid Medicaid expansion program. After taking office in 2015, the governor spearheaded an effort to rebrand the program, which has afforded health care to more than 280,000 Arkansans. Morgan has said repeatedly that she would eliminate Arkansas Works if elected. Doing so would likely tear a hole in the state’s budget, sending tens of thousands of Arkansans back to traditional Medicaid, of which the federal reimbursement rate is much lower.
To make Arkansas Works more affordable – and palatable to more conservative legislators – Hutchinson requested and received a waiver from the federal government to implement a work requirement for those on the public-private Medicaid expansion program.
“We haven’t had any of our rural hospitals close,” Hutchinson says. And he’s right. The last rural hospital to close due to financial reasons in Arkansas was Pike County Medical in 2009.
“That’s a story in and of itself that rural health care continues, challenged, but available,” he says. “I think a large part of it is because we have a continued to support health care coverage with reform. We’ve balanced access to health care with affordability to our state. I think the result is that we have clearly improved health care access in Arkansas… And we instituted some significant reform measures that helps it to be affordable for the state.”
In keeping rural hospitals open across the state, Hutchinson says Arkansas Works has eliminated the threat of having to drive long distances for health care. Nonexpansion states like Georgia, Tennessee and Texas have seen entire regions lose hospitals, putting ambulance rides at 30 minutes and longer.
“I was down in Crossett the other day, speaking at their annual hospital banquet,” the governor says. “It’s a mill town. You’ve got Georgia Pacific, and people can get injured on the work site. Where are you going to go for health care – to Monticello? If not, then do you go to Pine Bluff? El Dorado? And that’s becoming a long distance. That not only diminishes health care, but it diminishes your ability to recruit industry and to grow. No one wants to live in an area that doesn’t have good health care. I think it is important.”
And recruiting industry is something Hutchinson knows a lot about. Since taking office, Arkansas has been at the forefront of foreign direct investments, bringing in billions and creating thousands of new jobs. Arkansas recently experienced its lowest unemployment rate in state history. Hutchinson says that while most of these big investments in Arkansas communities make headlines, many go almost unnoticed.
“Sometimes you have job announcements that are done very quietly at the request of the company that’s investing, creating jobs,” he says, citing a recent quite announcement by Swedish aluminum manufacturer Grånges to expand its Newport operation with a $26 million investment. “We’ve continued to have success. Now, some of these jobs are in the pipeline. The commitments are made, but they have to build the facility before they get to hire the people.”
If given a second term, Hutchinson says he will continue his recruitment efforts alongside Arkansas Economic Development Commission Executive Director Mike Preston, the governor’s right-hand man when it comes to marketing the state on the global stage.
“My recruitment efforts are going to continue in a second term,” says Hutchinson. “They’ve paid off in the first term. I’m convinced more than ever that you have to have a governor that will market the state of Arkansas, and you have to do that globally. Good things happen when people are aware of the incredible workforce and the business-friendly climate that we have here in Arkansas.”
Following up on that marketing, he says, is critical, as well. An AEDC team is in the Shandong Province of China, where Arkansas has built a bit of a reputation. Sun Paper, from Shandong, is investing more than $1.5 billion in a Clark County paper mill. Shandong Ruyi, China’s largest textile manufacturer, announced plans a year ago to invest $410 million in a cotton processing facility in Forrest City; though, progress has slowed.
“Mike is in China, following up with Ruyi, which is investing in Forrest City,” says Hutchinson. “We’re trying to keep everything on track, going the right direction. They’re fully committed. But there’s always challenges when you complete that large of an investment. I’m delighted with where they are right now, but we’re anxious to have them move down that timeline into a job creation.”
With a hopeful eye to the future, Hutchinson says it’s all about growth from here on out. Economic and academic advancements, he says, are priorities for the second term, if given the opportunity. And, of course, much needed infrastructure improvements.
“Our priorities are broad, but they all hinge on the growth of our state,” the governor says. “Economic growth, and to accomplish that, there’s going to be an emphasis on education, reading, job skills training and STEM education.
“There’s going to be a focus on our infrastructure, both in terms of our rural broadband, which is so critical,” he adds. “And looking at the longer term, a highway plan. That’s all a part of growth. That’s all a part of the agenda moving forward.”
But first, Hutchinson has to get re-elected. And the first hurdle in doing so comes on Tuesday. He’s confident he’ll have the chance to continue working on behalf of his state.
In Cash & Candor, Arkansas Money & Politics / AY Magazine Editor Caleb Talley aims to shoot it straight when it comes to business and politics in and around the Natural State. Talley comes to AMP by way of the Arkansas Delta, where he called balls and strikes at the Forrest City Times-Herald. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more Cash & Candor here.