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The work of democracy: Governor presents bill to reporters, armed with pens, pads, tough questions

Press Shop | 02.04.2019

The news conference was the sort of political event that Governor Asa Hutchinson enjoys. He convened it in the historic Governor’s Conference Room, where every governor since 1915 has conducted state business and made big announcements.

His big announcement was the details of legislation that delivers on one of his significant campaign pledges. Legislators and leaders from several state agencies filled the conference room. The interpreter from the Arkansas School for the Deaf was in place to the right of the lectern. Television cameras stood in strategic places. The governor’s staff was broadcasting the gathering live on Facebook and YouTube.

At the center of the room, news reporters armed with notepads and tough questions occupied the chairs around the long conference table, built from timber donated by Governor George Donaghey in 1935.

Gatherings such as this, as the governor likes to say, are democracy in action. You fill a room with people with different views and different roles, and when you’re done, you’ve experienced democracy.

The topic of the gathering was the 5.9 Tax Cut Plan, Governor Hutchinson’s plan to reduce the state’s top income tax rate from 6.9 percent to 5.9 percent. This is the third phase of his three-part plan, which began with the largest income tax cuts in the state’s history in 2015 and 2017.

Dozens of leaders from the Department of Finance and Administration, from both houses of the legislature, and from the governor’s staff worked uncounted hours and participated in robust conversation. When they were done, they had hammered out a plan that cuts taxes and more importantly, won’t require anyone to pay more in taxes. No taxpayer left behind.

This phase is the most important piece of Governor Hutchinson’s big-picture plan because it reduces the top tax rate. The state must make this cut in order to compete for new business and industry with Arkansas’s neighboring states, where the tax rates are lower.

The press conference commenced at 2:30 p.m. when a member of the governor’s security detail entered from the governor’s suite, and then Governor Hutchinson emerged through the door with the stained glass window. The leaders with him included Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd, Senate Pro Tem Jim Hendren, Senator Johnathan Dismang, and Representative Joe Jett.

As they talked, they made it look easy, but the scene belied the work that got them there. Creation of the 5.9 Plan is where you really saw democracy at work. In the beginning, the governor and his economic advisors offered their plan. The give and take lasted right up until the last minute before the press conference began.

The governor stood at the lectern and shared his plan, pointing to a map and a graph that drove home his points. Legislators who participated in  writing the plan offered their views. And then it was the reporters’ turn.

The Arkansas press corps is generally polite and respectful of state leaders. Even when the issues are tough and complicated, their words are civil, both in the questions they ask and the words they print or broadcast.

At the news conference, their questions demonstrated a solid knowledge of the issue of taxes generally; the governor, who enjoys a hearty debate, fielded the questions with his customary ease.  

As the press conference ended, several reporters wanted to venture a bit farther into the weeds. So DFA Director Larry Walther and others from his agency, and a couple members of the governor’s staff, huddled at the east end of Governor Donaghey’s table. The reporters, scribbling furiously on their pads, peppered the state experts with questions. The reporters’ role is different from the state employees, but they share the same audience: taxpayers who consume the news. Their goal is to explain the 5.9 Plan in a way that their shared audience can understand.

Different and indispensable, democracy at work.

 [Top photo: Jake Bleed (standing, center), the governor's director of fiscal and agency operations, discusses the governor's income tax cut plan with reporters Michael Wickline (seated, second from left) of the Democrat-Gazette, Andrew DeMillo (seated, right) of the Associated Press, and Hunter Field of the Democrat-Gazette. Larry Walther (standing left), director of DF&A, Duncan Baird, executive director of the Arkansas Public Employees Retirement System and former budget administrator at DFA, and Paul Gehring, an assistant revenue commissioner at DF&A, participated in the discussion.]

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