LITTLE ROCK -- With two-thirds of voters approving of his job as governor in a state that has moved even further to the right, Asa Hutchinson's prospects for a second term appear bright as the Republican prepares to launch his 2018 election bid. The legislative session that begins on Monday could determine what headwinds the first-term governor will face in next year's election.
The agenda for the 91st General Assembly includes plenty of potential obstacles for Hutchinson's widely acknowledged but yet-to-be-announced re-election campaign. They include a fight with fellow Republicans over how much to cut taxes and the possibility of legislators taking up a bathroom bill similar to one that helped derail a fellow GOP governor's bid for a second term in North Carolina.
Hutchinson has seen legislators approve most of his agenda since taking office in 2015, and 66 percent of very likely voters last fall said they approved of the Republican governor's job performance, according to the University of Arkansas' annual Arkansas Poll. But a stumble or failure in a key area could offer a very narrow opening to Democrats who are still reeling from setbacks in the state they once controlled -- or even invite a challenge from within the Republican Party.
The biggest hurdle for Hutchinson is at the top of his agenda, with some Republicans pushing back against his plan for a $50 million income tax that will take effect in 2018. Hutchinson said last week he's preparing for a tougher fight on the cut than two years ago, when lawmakers approved his $102 million middle-class income tax reduction. Some GOP lawmakers are calling for a deeper cut that takes effect more swiftly, while Republican House Speaker Jeremy Gillam left open the possibility that no tax cuts will be enacted this year.
"I spent $1 million advertising for my $100 million tax cut and the people elected me on that, so you had a tremendous amount of momentum going into that," Hutchinson said in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press. "So there was a natural inclination to support that. That commitment has been fulfilled and so the legislators are very independent-minded and when it comes to tax cuts, everybody has a different idea."
Hutchinson also acknowledged he's facing resistance from Republicans who want relief for higher income taxpayers, but is trying to assure them that will be the next step in his plan to eventually cut taxes across the board.
Another challenge for Hutchinson will be walking the fine line on controversial and social issues that are bound to come up during the session. Hutchinson said he's likely to support a bill prohibiting dilation and evacuation, a second trimester procedure that abortion supporters say is the safest and most common, and he'll review other restrictions as they come up.
The pro-gun governor could also be put in a tough spot by the latest push to require colleges and universities to allow faculty and staff to carry concealed handguns on campus. Current law leaves the decision up to the schools' governing bodies, and Hutchinson said a case would need to be made to him on what that should be changed.
He's also expressed resistance to an effort to punish so-called sanctuary cities for people living in the country illegally and has made the push to remove Robert E. Lee from the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday part of legislative package.
But the biggest land mine for Hutchinson could come if lawmakers revisit the type of fight over LGBT rights that roiled the final days of the 2015 session, when Hutchinson urged the Legislature to rework a religious objections bill that was criticized as anti-gay. This time, he's discouraging lawmakers from taking up legislation similar to a North Carolina law that requires people to use restrooms consistent with the gender on their birth certificates. North Carolina's law sparked a widespread outcry and boycotts, something Hutchinson hopes to avoid in Arkansas.
"I've communicated to the legislators of interest just what I've said: I would encourage you to give this more time, I don't see that we have a problem in this state and from the solution I've seen in other states they can be counterproductive, they can be misconstrued and misapplied," Hutchinson told reporters at a pre-session forum hosted by the Arkansas Associated Press Managing Editors.
The worst-kept secret in Arkansas is that Hutchinson, who's already started raising money for re-election, is running for another term. The next few months will offer some clues on how that bid will go.
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005.Editorial on 01/10/2017