The best part so far of the Republican takeover of Arkansas government is Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
He’s no liberal. He took a prominent spot in front of the annual march against abortion in Little Rock. He’s worked for the NRA. He betrays a feeling that government assistance goes too much to undeserving.
But he’s living up to his reputation as someone who listens to others, who moves carefully and who is willing to let practical considerations outweigh ideological fervor.
Some events worth noting.
LEADERSHIP: He put a veteran former state agency director, Larry Walther, at the top of Finance amd Administration on Richard Weiss’ retirement, but left Weiss’ capable top assistants in place. Many in Hutchinson’s party had wanted former legislator Ted Thomas in that job.
Thomas is a hyper-partisan political consultant whose sometimes prickly personal interactions, including with some Republicans, suggested he’d be a sharp contrast with the smooth Weiss. Thomas’ political acuity was revealed when he told a reporter he’d wanted DFA and PSC, but it was Hutchinson’s choice which he got. Not smooth. The appropriate comment was his humble pleasure to serve the new governor. He’s a lawyer with PSC experience and well placed in the thicket of utility regulation.
TAXES: Yes, Hutchinson followed through with his promised “middle class tax cut.” It has structural flaws. It creates four separate graduated income tax rate scales, rather than one. It includes bracket cliffs at various income points where $1 more in income can cost hundreds in taxes. It gives a fat tax break to two-income middle income families over a single-income family with the same gross income.
Its biggest flaw — and here again you may see a hint of a view about the undeserving — is providing no help for people making less than $21,000 a year, a category that represents 40 percent of all Arkansas wage earners.
But … it does add some needed progressivity to the income tax tables in the middle ranges. It does delay a small tax break for top income earners (from 7 to 6.9 percent of the top rate.) And, wonder of wonders, Hutchinson backed a repeal of the 2013 capital gains tax break, both the discount given to most capital gains and the unbelievable total exemption given gains of more than $10 million. The Senate passed the bill in this form but the House is resisting and wants to reinstate favors to the 1 percent who benefit from the majority of capital gains. Some of the Hutchinson repeal may go away, but he presented a budget Tuesday based on the expectation that the money wouldn’t be lost. Still Hutchinson deserves some credit for balance, particularly when you consider the overwhelmingly Republican legislature it must pass. Will he hold the line against other Republican desires for still more tax cuts?
ASACARE: It is not fair merely to credit budget necessities for Hutchinson’s decision to continue the private option expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare for two years. His budget needs the federal money, no doubt. But he also stripped some ineffective and expensive measures to stick co-pays and enforced savings accounts on the poorest private option recipients. These were pointless additions, mostly for show, to appeal to the meanness that lurks in the hearts of the hardest opponents of government health care. Hutchinson evinced, too, some sympathy now and in future versions of health care in Arkansas — even if dramatically restructured — for the more than 200,000 who now have health insurance; for the hospitals whose uncompensated costs are down; and for the savings we are seeing from improvements in the health care system under the Beebe administration.
Hutchinson listens. He demonstrates an ability to adapt. He won’t be a Huckabee-style quote machine, with a hyperbole for every occasion. He’s also more likely to be effective. He may even prove a touch more populist than liberal Democrats ever dared hope.