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story.lead_photo.caption Gov. Asa Hutchinson (right) jokes with Arkansas Senate President Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang while greeting legislators after a news conference Tuesday outlining his priorities for the legislative session starting Jan. 9. The governor sorted his policy plans into three categories: economic development, education, and efficiency and government transformation. - Photo by Benjamin Krain

Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday presented his list of priorities for the 2017 legislative session -- a mix ranging from income tax cuts and government reorganization to spending in mental health and higher education.

In his last scheduled news conference before the holidays, Hutchinson presented 18 policy ideas that he said he will push as legislation during the regular session, which starts Jan. 9. Many of the items on his list have been discussed previously by the Republican governor.

His proposals range from big-ticket items, such a new higher-education funding formula and tax plan, to following up on his previously stated goals of making the government more efficient and separating the state's Robert E. Lee/Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, which is observed in January.

For example, the governor wants to move supervision of Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium to the state Department of Parks and Tourism as part of a government reorganization package. That idea was originally proposed in October, shortly after Hutchinson announced plans to halve state funding supporting the stadium from $895,171 in fiscal 2018 to $447,647 in fiscal 2019. Fiscal 2018 starts July 1.

The governor's efficiency proposal also includes moving the state Energy Office from the Arkansas Economic Development Commission to the Department of Environmental Quality, and the Office of Health Information and Technology from being a stand-alone agency to being within the Department of Health.

Hutchinson also said he wants to eliminate 19 boards and commissions that his office has deemed "unnecessary." The list of boards on the chopping block was later released by a spokesman.

More than half of Hutchinson's legislative priorities are found within his budget proposal, including a proposed $50.5 million annual income tax cut for low-income Arkansans.

Hutchinson presented his proposed budget for the next biennium to lawmakers on Nov. 9, and followed up with details on his tax plan -- including a $13 million exemption for military retirement income -- earlier this month.

Fielding questions from reporters, Hutchinson acknowledged that his agenda will face competition for the attention of lawmakers, who also are expected to consider changes to the Medical Marijuana Amendment passed by voters in November, as well as an array of bills on social issues that lawmakers have already begun to file.

Hutchinson said he will consider those bills as they come. Among them will be a bill filed to ban a common abortion procedure used by women in the second trimester, but his focus will be on the areas of economic development, education and government efficiency.

"I ran for governor as the jobs governor," Hutchinson said. "That doesn't mean I'm less pro-life, that I'm less concerned with other issues."

The governor's office has been in talks with lawmakers to find sponsors for his packages, said spokesman J.R. Davis, but is not ready to announce which legislators it will lean on for support in the General Assembly.

While lawmakers have yet to "digest" all of the governor's agenda, Senate President Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, said none of the proposals are likely to stir a lot of controversy within the Legislature.

"The governor will have a successful session on this agenda," Dismang said, adding that lawmakers will make their own tweaks and changes over the next few months.

One of Hutchinson's budget priorities is the plan announced earlier to create a new model for disbursing funds to higher-education institutions based on how many students complete certificates or degrees, rather than how many students are enrolled.

A $10 million increase in higher-education funding is contingent upon the new model being implemented, according to Hutchinson's plan.

The governor also repeated his commitment made earlier this year to change the state holiday celebrating the birthdays of Lee, a Confederate general, and King, the civil rights leader, on the same day.

The men's birthdays have been jointly recognized in a state holiday since the mid-1980s, when an agreement was struck to begin recognizing the federal King holiday.

During the 2015 general session, lawmakers in the House and Senate filed separate bills to divide the holiday, but both proposals died in committee.

Hutchinson's proposal would recognize Lee's birthday in the fall, although the general was born on Jan. 19, 1807.

Some items did not make the cut of the governor's stated agenda.

After announcing his support for scrapping the election of justices to the Arkansas Supreme Court, the governor didn't announce a proposal for a system of merit selection to replace the elections.

Asked about it during the news conference, Hutchinson said he has been in talks with legislative leaders on the House and Senate judiciary committees, and he will wait to see what proposals, if any, lawmakers come up with during the session.

A Section on 12/21/2016

Print Headline: Hutchinson lays out '17 session priorities

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