- Associated Press - Thursday, May 5, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday that he’s unlikely to proceed this year with his plan to end Arkansas’ practice of honoring civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on the same day.

The Republican governor told reporters that he doesn’t expect to put the proposal on the agenda for a special session he plans for May 19 that will focus on his highway proposal. He said in January that he wanted lawmakers to take up the proposal during next year’s session, but later left open the possibility of trying the move during the highway session.

“At this point, there’s not a consensus that it should be a special session item and I’ve met with the Legislative Black Caucus and will continue to discuss this with them,” Hutchinson said. “But I’ve not sensed a consensus that that should be on the special session agenda.”

Arkansas is one of three states - along with Alabama and Mississippi - that jointly celebrate the black civil rights icon and the white Confederate general on the third Monday in January. Arkansas has recognized Lee’s birthday since the 1940s. State lawmakers voted to recognize King’s birthday as a state holiday in 1983, and combined the celebrations two years later.

Opponents of the combined holiday say celebrating the Confederate general on the same day as the civil rights icon hurts the state’s image and its efforts to attract businesses.

A proposal to end the practice failed repeatedly before an Arkansas House committee last year, and several black lawmakers have expressed reluctance about trying the proposal during the special session, especially since the makeup of the House committee hasn’t changed. The Legislative Black Caucus in March tabled a vote on whether to support ending the dual holiday, and members said they wanted more details on how the move would be carried out.

Democratic Sen. Joyce Elliott, a member of the caucus, said earlier Thursday she’d prefer taking up the issue next year, especially since Hutchinson and legislative leaders have said they want the highway session to last only three or four days. The governor said Thursday he doesn’t plan on calling lawmakers back in session this year after they take up his highway plan this month.

“It is a very polarizing issue, and we are intending to have a special session within three days,” Elliott said. “Well, that’s going to be difficult to have engagement in three days.”

Members of the caucus had also previously expressed concern about whether the compromise would require a designated day to honor Lee or Southern heritage, a provision that had been included in previous legislation.

Hutchinson said he’s still committed to ending the dual holiday.

“My support has been consistent to separate those days and to give Dr. King a separate day to honor his memory and contributions,” Hutchinson said.

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ademillo

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