Arkansas governor focuses on police funds as session starts
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Monday called for tapping into the state’s surplus to give local law enforcement a one-time $5,000 payment and new equipment, as the Republican delivered his final state of the state address.
Hutchinson, who is serving his final year as governor, kicked off a legislative session that he and leading lawmakers hope to keep focused on the state’s budget despite a push by some Republicans to enact new abortion restrictions and take up other culture wars issues.
Hutchinson said he’ll support a plan to give the one-time payment to every county and city certified law enforcement officer in the state, a move that will cost the state $45 million. He also proposed using another $10 million in surplus funds to award grants for law enforcement agencies for equipment, including body cameras. Finance officials have said they expect the state to end the current fiscal year with a $500 million surplus.
“Currently, our law enforcement is underfunded, underpaid and underappreciated,” Hutchinson said in a half-hour address to members of the House and Senate. “The actions of this general assembly to fund more, pay more and to appreciate more will send the unmistakable message that in Arkansas, we support and value our law enforcement officers.”
The annual mean wage for police and sheriff’s officers in Arkansas is $42,530, below the national mean wage of $70,000, according to federal Bureau of Labor Statistics figures from May 2020.
Hutchinson’s speech was briefly interrupted by protesters opposed to his plan to use up to $100 million in surplus money for a nearly 500-bed expansion of the state’s prison system. Chanting and shouting “no new cages,” the protesters were removed from the House gallery. Two protesters were arrested on misdemeanor disorderly conduct charges, Capitol police said.
Video posted online by the Heat Magazine showed protesters and police clashing in the Capitol tunnel after the disturbance. A spokesman for Secretary of State John Thurston said a standard administrative investigation would take place about the arrests and officers involved, and Thurston later tweeted that the officers had followed protocol.
Hutchinson has said the prison expansion is needed because of expected growth in the state’s prison population and to ease a backlog of inmates being housed in local jails.
The top Republican in the House said he expected Hutchinson’s proposals would have widespread support, but that he thinks some lawmakers would want more details on the mechanics of the one-time payments and their distribution.
“I think people just want to work out, is this one-time thing really a long-term solution or not?” said Rep. Austin McCollum, the House majority leader.
Democratic Rep. Tippi McCullough, the House minority leader, said she thinks there needs to be a more comprehensive strategy on criminal justice than just building a new prison.
“We can just continue to build prisons with beds, but that’s not getting to the root of some of the problems,” she said.
Hutchinson didn’t address efforts by some Republicans to enact an abortion ban similar to Texas’ restrictive law, which leaves enforcement up to private citizens through lawsuits instead of to prosecutors through criminal charges.
Hutchinson, who has signed several abortion restrictions since he took office in 2015, has said the state should wait to see what happens from the Supreme Court, which will issue a ruling this year on Mississippi’s law that bans abortions at 15 weeks. That decision could weaken or overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide.
Those proposals were handed a setback Monday, however, when resolutions that would allow them to be considered failed before a House panel. Identical resolutions are pending before the Senate.
Any of the abortion proposals would need two-thirds support of lawmakers from both chambers to be considered since the session is intended to focus on the state’s budget.
Hutchinson has proposed a $6 billion budget for the coming fiscal year that increases state spending by 3.3%. The proposal includes increased pay for state troopers and additional funding for programs for the developmentally disabled.
Hutchinson also announced he was creating an advisory council to come up with recommendations regarding laws or regulations creating an obstacle to developing and supporting “future mobility” such as autonomous vehicles, drones and electric vehicles.
He noted the state is set to receive $54 million in federal funds over the next five years for electric charging station infrastructure. Hutchinson said he hoped to accelerate that, which he said may require state funding.