Members of the Arkansas General Assembly settled into the Senate Chamber at the Arkansas State Capitol and at the Jack Stephens Center on Wednesday to begin the 2020 fiscal session, where they will deliberate over the state’s budget and financial assistance for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the legislators began discussing budgets, Gov. Asa Hutchinson stepped up to the podium in the Senate Chamber to deliver his State of the State address. While acknowledging uncertainty caused by the ongoing pandemic, Hutchinson urged both the assembly members and Arkansans to consider the measures taken to contain the virus and how the state will pull out of the crisis.
“The honest answer is that our economic condition is uncertain, but the state of our character has never been stronger. We are prepared to beat the silent enemy that haunts our hallways. We are prepared to be a neighbor and friend to each other even though we are physically apart,” he said.
A public health emergency was declared in Arkansas on March 27. In the intervening period, more than 1,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in the Arkansas and 18 deaths have been caused by the virus. To combat the virus, Hutchinson, his administration and state agencies have implemented a range of measures designed to limit the spread and provide assistance around the state.
Some of the measures that Hutchinson listed include the closure of schools, restaurants, bars, casinos, salons, state park lodges and more; the expansion of telemedicine; encouraging remote working; limiting public gatherings; and advocating for social distancing.
However, Hutchinson acknowledged that some of these measures have had negative impacts that have reverberated around the state. More than 110,000 unemployment claims have been processed since the pandemic began with more expected to be filed.
“But all of this has been done with a realization that these emergency actions have caused people to lose their jobs and their livelihood. It has caused some businesses to close and others to scale back. And in each one of these cases it is heartbreaking to me and to our state to see our fellow citizens pay the consequences in that fashion, Hutchinson said.
He called on the Arkansas General Assembly to adjust the state’s budget. Arkansas Department of Finance & Administration Secretary Larry Walther revised the state’s revenue forecast in late March as a result of expected budget shortfalls. According to Walther, the budget is expected to see a shortfall of $353.1 million by the end if the current fiscal year. Hutchinson says that next year’s forecast has been cut by $205 million.
While Hutchinson promised to take cost-cutting measures, including reducing travel and freezing state employment, he said that the legislature would need to trim the budget to fit within the new parameters. However, he urged the assembly to maintain funding for education, public safety and health care while ensuring there are sufficient reserve funds.
“We will maintain our commitment to funding public education, public safety, and Medicaid,” he said. But to do so, we will need to have some reserve funds with flexibility and oversight to be sure there is no gap in essential services to our citizens.”
Hutchison concluded with a call to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic by embracing a brighter future for Arkansas.
“Members of this assembly, we may make mistakes, but make no mistake – our eyes are fixed on our next opportunity, our next challenge, and our next future victories that are before us,” he said. “We will do what Americans and Arkansans have always done. We will be strong, and we will prevail.”