- Associated Press - Thursday, March 17, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson may move sooner than expected on a plan to end the state’s practice of commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on the same day and is considering putting the proposal before lawmakers this spring, his office said Thursday.

The Republican governor is looking at including the issue on the agenda for a special session expected later this spring on highway funding, though a final decision hasn’t been made, spokesman J.R. Davis said. Arkansas is one of three states to jointly celebrate the black civil rights icon and the white Confederate general on the third Monday in January, and a proposal to end that practice failed repeatedly before a House committee last year.

Hutchinson in January said he wanted lawmakers to take up the proposal during next year’s regular session. Hutchinson plans to call a special session on his highway funding proposal after the Legislature’s fiscal session, which convenes next month.

“The governor considers it extremely important to get done, period,” Davis said. The governor isn’t considering putting the proposal on the agenda for a special session planned for April 6 on his proposal to keep and rework Arkansas’ hybrid Medicaid expansion, Davis said.

Last year’s push to end the joint celebration came after a photo of a sign noting the King and Lee holiday was circulated online, drawing comments and criticism. Supporters of the move say the combined holiday hurts the state’s image and its efforts to attract businesses. Alabama and Mississippi also commemorate King and Lee on the same holiday.

Rep. Vivian Flowers, who said Hutchinson mentioned the possibility of pursuing the proposal this year during a recent meeting with the Legislative Black Caucus, expressed concerns about doing so in a special session.

“I think that at this point it would be a distraction from some majorly important issues in terms of our budget and highway funding,” Flowers, a Democrat from Pine Bluff, said. “Even aside from that, I would also be concerned about our ability to even get a good bill passed given the fact we’d be dealing with the same Legislature and same members.”

Flowers said she was worried that the proposal could include a compromise to designate another day to honor Lee or Southern heritage, a provision that had been included in previous legislation. Davis said he wasn’t aware of the specifics of the governor’s proposal and that Hutchinson didn’t have a draft of the legislation yet.

Opponents of the move regularly filled the committee hearing room whenever the proposal came up last year, arguing that separating the holidays would diminish the state’s Confederate heritage and that there was no proof Arkansas had lost any economic projects because it commemorates Lee and King on the same day.

Rep. Fred Love, who sponsored one of the proposals to separate the holidays, said he would be open to trying again with the move in a special session depending on the bill and whether it has enough support to pass.

“If the math added up, I would definitely run it in a special session,” said Love, a Democrat from Little Rock.

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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