The Republican Party’s candidate for governor said Wednesday he sees an opportunity for economic growth in the delta.
“One of the foundations of the Delta is the agricultural economy,” Asa Hutchinson said when he stopped at The Commercial after touring the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and meeting the chancellor. “I’ve actually spent over $100,000 in ads promoting Arkansas agriculture in this campaign.
“That’s an important message that this is a $20 billion industry in Arkansas that’s growing,” he said. “It is the No. 1 economic force in our state and it is focused in the Delta. I’m optimistic in that regard.”
He said the challenge for the Delta is: “We have had more efficiency in the farm economy that has had a restriction in jobs and the size of some of our communities. This is not a matter of saying that this is an irresistible force that’s going to be a problem forever. This is a matter of adjusting to the new economy and that’s where we are right now. We shouldn’t be down or discouraged right now about having to make an adjustment.
“It all comes down to local leadership and I think Pine Bluff has really worked hard to develop strong leadership that’s committed to economic development and I want to partner with them,” Hutchinson said.
On the subject of prison overcrowding, Hutchinson said no one wants to build more prisons “but we have to have adequate prison space.
“It’s the foundation of an effective criminal justice system,” he said. “We do have a crime problem in Arkansas that really hurts our communities and our workforce and I want to be able to address it, to reduce the influence of drugs that hurts our productivity, hurts our communities and I want to bring my experience in law enforcement to bear on that problem.”
He said he wanted to look at how best to approach the problem, rather than just commit to building a new prison, but also said he was “committed to having additional prison space.
“But I’ve also committed myself to more effective investment in re-entry program so those that leave prison that actually want to get a job, we need to reduce the barriers for them to get employment,” Hutchinson said.
Revisions in the Arkansas Criminal Code several years ago changed the penalties for many crimes and put more people on parole — with the goal of easing prison overcrowding — but Hutchinson said the changes failed to increase the number of parole officers “and provide enough accountability to make that system work.
“I want to change behavior,” he said. “And if we can send a signal and say, ‘if you’re out on parole and you violate the rules then you’re going to be held accountable.’ That changes behavior. So I’m hoping we’re having a short-term spike in our prison population that will actually go down as we change behavior.”
Regarding the state’s so-called private option, Hutchinson said the program has improved access to health care for some people who could not previously afford it and also has been beneficial to rural hospitals.
“We have to continue to look at it long-term as to whether we as a state can afford what we have in the Medicaid expansion or private option,” he said. “Because the state is going to have to pick up an increasing percent of that total funding.
“So my obligation as governor is to look at the long-term costs, the benefits we’re gaining and balance that,” Hutchinson said, “and make a good decision with the legislature for the future, and the returns continue to come in. We don’t have all the cost figures yet.”
Regarding educational issues, Hutchinson said “We need to concentrate not only on those that are going to college but also those that might be going into the skilled workforce.”
Hutchinson said on a previous visit to Pine Bluff, he toured Southeast Arkansas College, “and I was so impressed with the master welding program that is training those that want to go into welding as a career with very good paying jobs.
“I see in terms of education more cooperation, coordination in workforce development between our high schools and our two-year colleges,” he said. “I see more opportunities for concurrent college credit that will allow someone that is coming out of high school to have not just a high school diploma but also a number of hours toward a college degree.”
Asked why he was seeking the office, Hutchinson said “Because I’m passionate about job creation.
“A lot of people know my history in public service but what a lot of people don’t know is my work in the private sector and my experience as a businessman,” he said. “Over the last eight years I’ve actually been developing businesses and working hard in the private sector and I just realized how critical it is for the state of Arkansas to succeed. We’ve got to do better as compared to our surrounding states in economic development. That’s my passion and that’s why I’m running.”
Also running for governor are Democrat Mike Ross, Libertarian candidate Frank Gilbert and Green Party candidate Joshua Drake.