Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s eight-year administration began with a controversial health care policy debate and was marked by the health care crisis of the century.
The policy debate revolves around whether to continue the “private option,” a program that began under Gov. Mike Beebe is using Obamacare dollars to buy private health insurance for 343,000 Arkansans. You may have heard of it.
The problem was the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m sure you’ve heard of it.
Hutchinson talked about those challenges and others in an interview in his office on Dec. 20. This column is the second in a two-part series. The first was about his campaign for president. He will decide in the next three months whether to run.
During the pandemic, Hutchinson closed public schools for in-person instruction at the end of the spring 2020 semester, then reopened in the fall. While it temporarily closed some businesses and eventually instituted a candy mandate, Arkansas didn’t shut down the way other states did. Most of his efforts were based on knowledge and persuasion.
I asked how he balances controlling the spread of the virus with other important things like the economy and schools. How did he sleep at night while making life and death decisions?
“I trusted my ability to make decisions. I have been in serious situations before,” he said. “But the second time, I was asked the same question when I was at Homeland Security: How do you sleep at night knowing that if there is a terrorist attack, you can be held accountable? And the answer is, I believe in a sovereign God, and I pray for decisions. I do it based on the best knowledge I have, and I trust that decision and the future, and Who directs the ways of the nations. “
He rarely struggles with decisions after making them. Sometimes you think of those that were done too quickly and without proper information, but COVID was not one of those situations.
“It is clear that there are decisions that may historically have been judged correctly or incorrectly,” he said. “But I feel really comfortable with what we did, and I think about the big problems we made the right decisions.”
As for the private option, Hutchinson had to overcome early opposition from lawmakers within his Republican Party to reach the 75% support needed for funding. He succeeded by buying time, using parliamentary discretion, and adding a work requirement that has been denied by the federal government.
When asked about the basis of this program, he said that it is an effective method for the government. Later known as Arkansas Works and now as ARHOME, it was already part of the state’s health care system and hospital funding structure when he took office. Then he added a job requirement, a sequential method.
A lot has happened in the last eight years. When asked about his greatest success as a manager, he pointed out “those places that would not have happened without my leadership. So the tax cut, it’s a computer science program, led by COVID, is changing state government. These are things that would not have happened unless I went outside, put my political capital, and led our state in those places. I think you can also add protection for the Buffalo River. That would not have happened in terms of buying that pig farm without the governor stepping in.”
Remember all that? Hutchinson lowered taxes at all income levels, increased the number of students taking computer science classes from 500 to 23,544, and reduced the number of cabinet-level agencies from 42 to 15. The state announced that it is buying the pig farm in January 2020 for $6.2 million.
Now that he is stepping down, Hutchinson, 72, has no plans to retire. He would like to write a book. If he runs for president, he will have to start soon.
In a short period of time, moving out of the Governor’s House and his office has been a huge task. Eight years of archival material goes to the University of Arkansas.
He will seek an office in Rogers where he will continue his national plans. The good thing is that he will not have to find a place to live.
“Actually, we kept our house there, thank you, so I’ve had my house there for eight years because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to buy it up there now,” he said with a laugh.
Steve Brawner is a columnist published in 18 newspapers in Arkansas. Email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.