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Hutchinson to start term as head of governors’ group

by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette , Frank E. Lockwood | July 9, 2021 at 8:33 a.m.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson answers a question during the weekly covid-19 update on Tuesday, June 29, 2021, at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

WASHINGTON — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson will take the helm of the National Governors Association today, the third Arkansan to lead the 113-year-old national organization.

The Republican, who has served as the organization’s vice chairman for the past year, will replace the current chairman — Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Under the organization’s bylaws, the chairmanship rotates between the two major political parties; the vice chairman rises to chairman after serving for a year.

According to its website, members “share best practices, address issues of national and state interest and share innovative solutions that improve state government and support the principles of federalism.”

In a telephone interview Wednesday with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Hutchinson said he looks forward to his new role, calling it “one of the highlights of my tenure as governor.”

Serving as chairman is “a great opportunity to be a voice for Arkansas but also to address some issues nationally that I care about,” he said.

“In terms of my mission, it will be, very importantly, to help facilitate the states’ partnership with the White House on vaccine distribution,” Hutchinson said. “We’ve got to finish the job of coming out of this pandemic, and that will be one of the focuses of the NGA under my leadership.”

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden in March, included $350 billion in emergency funding for state, local, tribal and territorial governments.

The National Governors Association can help with “developing best practices for utilizing the American Rescue funds that will help drive our economy and build the infrastructure that’s so important for the states from health care to broadband,” Hutchinson said.

As chairman, Hutchinson will also emphasize education.

“Arkansas is widely known for what we’ve been able to [do] in building a model computer science education program that’s really recognized nationally,” he said. “I want to be able to help build on that, across the nation.”

Hutchinson publicly opposed the size of Biden’s recent infrastructure spending proposal, arguing it was larger than necessary.

As chairman, Hutchinson said, he will continue to have “honest communication” with the White House and will “look for bipartisan solutions that will advance our country.”

“There’s a limited number of areas that we can agree upon … [as] Democrat and Republican governors. So I build on those areas of agreement,” he said.

“Part of my role is to bring people together for solutions that work in the states. That’s what’s unique about a governor: We actually have to get a lot of things done every day, and we move very quickly. I want to be able to focus on what we can get done and to remove the obstacles from Washington when we can,” he said.

One of his predecessors, Bill Clinton, was National Governors Association chairman from 1986-87.

Another, Mike Huckabee, held the post from 2005-06.

“It’s a great honor, but an important position to convene the nation’s governors and focus on pragmatic solutions to problems all face,” Huckabee said in a text message Wednesday. “NGA has historically been less partisan and ideological and centered around best practices for states.”

Asked what advice, if any, he’d have for Hutchinson, Huckabee said, “Asa needs no advice from me — he was selected by his peers and I hope he enjoys his term as I did.”

After his time as chairman, Clinton went on to win the presidency, the only National Governors Association leader, thus far, to do so.

After his stint as chairman, Huckabee also ran for the presidency, carrying eight states in the 2008 Republican presidential primary.

Asked whether he’s mulling a presidential bid of his own, Hutchinson said: “No. I’m thinking about finishing the job strongly in Arkansas, and also being able to influence the direction of our country and my party in 2022.”

It’s important, Hutchinson maintains, that the next election not be a referendum on the 45th president.

“If [Donald] Trump is the issue in 2022, we’re going to have problems winning elections,” he said.

The National Governors Association, which dates to 1908, describes itself as “the voice of the nation’s governors and one of the most respected public policy organizations in the country.”

Governors from all 50 states are members, as are the governors of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Last month, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy was elected as the next vice chairman.

“Gov. Hutchinson has been a leader on many bipartisan initiatives, including the expansion of broadband access to underserved communities, and I look forward to partnering with him in his role as NGA Chair over the course of the next year,” Murphy said in a written statement at the time.

Typically, the association holds a winter meeting each year in Washington, with a summer meeting held elsewhere.

Last year’s gathering, in Portland, Maine, was derailed by the covid-19 pandemic. This summer’s meeting, like the last, will be virtual.

Cuomo is scheduled to give a farewell address, lasting roughly 20 minutes, this morning. Hutchinson will address his fellow governors during a closing session this afternoon.

Members of the association’s Executive Committee will also be announced today.

The nine-person committee “has general authority over all policy issues and primary jurisdiction over issues involving federalism, homeland security, the federal budget and federal tax policy.”

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