Analysis: Special session a practice round for tougher fights Arkansas governor faces



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LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson appears unlikely to face any insurmountable obstacles in his push for incentives to lure a defense project to the state, or any of the other major items on his agenda when lawmakers convene this week.

But the special session could offer the Republican governor a practice round for a much tougher fight later this year over the future of the state's compromise Medicaid expansion.

Unlike the first "super-project" economic development bonds issued two years ago, the $87 million bond package aimed at helping Lockheed Martin win a defense contract isn't stirring any opposition from lobbyists and little public grumbling from any lawmakers.

Hutchinson is proposing the state issue the bonds to help Lockheed Martin as it hopes to produce a new line of tactical vehicles that will replace the Humvee at its Camden facility. It's a project that he says will help create nearly 600 new jobs in the state.

"We want to do the state's part to make sure that Lockheed Martin and south Arkansas is in a position to win this," Hutchinson told reporters last week.

The incentive package is smaller than the $125 million in financing Arkansas provided to Big River Steel two years ago for its facility under construction near Osceola, and the pushback is smaller so far. Big River faced heavy lobbying in opposition from a competing steel mill in northeast Arkansas and the opposition of conservative activists, something that Lockheed's project hasn't encountered so far.

That could change as the session begins. Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group that opposed the Big River Steel incentives, signaled resistance to the Lockheed bond proposal late last week.

"Taxpayer money should be used to benefit all business across the state, rather than giving a handout to one corporation," David Ray, the group's state director, said in a statement released Friday that stopped short of taking a position on the proposal going before lawmakers this week.

The most contentious item on the agenda for this week's session is the proposal to move Arkansas' primary from May to March, part of an effort to create a southeastern regional nominating contest dubbed the "SEC primary." Hutchinson supports the plan, saying it'll ensure voters have a say in who the presidential nominees are next year.

The proposal is likely to face mostly party-line opposition, with top Democrats questioning the need for such a move and some Republicans joining in that skepticism. But with the backing of Hutchinson and the state's GOP chairman, the bid to move all the primaries up faces an easier path forward than a proposal that stalled in the Legislature earlier this year to only move the presidential contest up.

Legislative leaders have said they expect few fights over other parts of the session agenda, including Hutchinson's push to merge some state agencies and a change in the state driving while intoxicated law officials say is needed to avoid losing federal highway funding.

Barring any surprises, this could be tame compared to the next time the Legislature is expected to convene. Hutchinson has said a special session will be likely to take up the recommendations of a task force looking at the future of the state's compromise Medicaid expansion. The task force is expected to issue its recommendations on the future of the private option — which uses federal funds to purchase private insurance for the poor — by mid-December.

Hutchinson has said the only idea that's off the table is merely tweaking the private option and relabeling the program, but he's likely to face opposition from Democrats to any plan that would kick thousands off the expanded coverage.

How easily Hutchinson can win support for his agenda this week could provide some clues on the battle he faces on Medicaid later this year.


Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ademillo

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