LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson was sworn in for a second term Tuesday and took the opportunity to portray his re-election victory as a mandate for a "growth agenda" that includes an income tax cut, a teacher pay raise and a plan to reorganize state agencies.
Hutchinson, who is the state's 46th governor, took the oath of office in front of a joint session of the House and Senate before he was formally inaugurated on the state Capitol steps. The former congressman and federal Homeland Security official was first elected in 2014 and easily won re-election in November, defeating Democratic challenger Jared Henderson.
"We have an understanding from history that our future is brightest when we embrace the new and we create growth. Remember, the voters supported us and gave us approval for a growth agenda," Hutchinson told the Republican-controlled Legislature. "We cannot let them down."
Hutchinson touted his proposal to cut the state's top income tax rate from 6.9 percent to 5.9 percent over the next four years and to simplify tax tables and brackets. His proposal would cost the state $47 million the first year and $111 million the following year.
Official video courtesy of the Governor's Office.
Hutchinson sought to allay concerns from Democrats about the eventual $192 million price tag of his tax cut and said Arkansas had remained committed to essential services during two tax cuts he advocated during his first term for middle and low income earners. The state also built a reserve of $125 million during that time, he said.
"Today, we have a budget that allows for tax cuts while investing in the future," Hutchinson said. "We have demonstrated we can do it and we will do it again."
Hutchinson also tried to tamp down calls for more cuts this session, noting that more than $110 million in previously approved grocery and income tax cuts are also taking effect in the coming fiscal year. He also promised to ensure that no one sees a tax increase from the plan. The proposal calls for increasing the standard deduction to offset any increases, but finance officials last week said there were still some taxpayers who would see a net increase.
Democrats said they're worried the benefits of Hutchinson's tax cut plan are skewed toward the state's higher earners, and said they would try again to push through a tax credit aimed at lower-income Arkansans.
"The middle class should be the continued focus of the tax relief," Democratic Rep. Jay Richardson said.
Hutchinson's agenda for the legislative session, which kicked off Monday, also includes a plan to cut the number of state agencies that directly answer to him from 42 to 15 and to set aside $60 million to raise minimum teacher salaries over the next four years. Hutchinson provided few details on another priority he and legislative leaders have identified for the session: an effort to find long-term additional highway funding.
In his inaugural address, Hutchinson urged the majority Republican Legislature to not be as polarized as lawmakers in Washington.
"Our nation has differing views on seemingly everything. This is not historically unusual, but the shrillness of the division distracts us from getting things done," Hutchinson said. "Our response in Arkansas is to lead by example."
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