- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 13, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Republican Asa Hutchinson was sworn in as the 46th governor of Arkansas on Tuesday, finalizing the GOP’s takeover of a Southern state once considered a Democratic holdout, but confronting a potentially divisive debate over Medicaid expansion.

Speaking to a joint session of the state House and Senate, Hutchinson called his campaign promise to cut middle-class income taxes by $100 million a year his top priority and said the proposal would be detailed to lawmakers later this week. He cast his election as a “new day” for the state, promising major changes to state government.

“Sometimes change is resisted because we are content and comfortable in the status quo,” Hutchinson said after being sworn in. “Let me tell you, friends and colleagues, that the status quo for Arkansas is not acceptable.”

Hutchinson, a former congressman and federal Homeland Security official, succeeds Democrat Mike Beebe, who was barred by term limits from seeking re-election.

In an inaugural address on the state Capitol steps, Hutchinson hailed Republicans’ victories in an election where the party swept all statewide offices and expanded its majority in the Legislature. But he also urged cooperation on major issues.

“Governing is not about which political party is in the majority,” he said. “Governing is about setting aside differences and searching for common ground. And as we search for common ground, we realize that our differences are smaller than we thought and our hearts are larger than we imagined.”

Hutchinson, 64, is a decades-long veteran of Arkansas politics and a key figure in the Republican Party’s rise in a state where Democrats had until recently dominated top offices. His victory in November came after three unsuccessful runs for statewide office, including his loss to Beebe in the 2006 governor’s race.

Hutchinson said he believed his tax cut plan would benefit 500,000 Arkansas residents and make the state more competitive. He said the proposal would require some “savings” in state government, but that his budget would fully fund education. Hutchinson said he planned to present his budget proposal this month.

Hutchinson has left open the possibility of delaying some tax cuts already approved, an idea that several Republican lawmakers have said they’re reluctant to support.

He has stopped short of saying whether he’ll back continuing the “private option” Medicaid, which uses federal funds to purchase private insurance for the poor. More than 213,000 people are enrolled in the program, crafted two years ago as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal health law. He told lawmakers Tuesday he would address the program’s future on Jan. 22.

“Please be patient and await action until I have the opportunity to lay out my ideas and what I hope you will consider in terms of health care reform for the state of Arkansas in the coming years,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson later told reporters he was finalizing his health care plan and said he’s been reaching out to other Republican governors to see how much flexibility the state may have for changes to the private option or the Medicaid program as a whole.

The expansion has sharply divided Republicans, and faces an uncertain future after several opponents were elected to the Legislature, which convened for the 2015 session on Monday.

House Majority Leader Ken Bragg, who supported the private option, said he believed some of the opponents could be swayed by changes to the program.

“We do realize we need to find a solution instead of just dropping it,” Bragg, R-Sheridan, said.

Senate Public Health Committee Chairwoman Cecile Bledsoe, an opponent of the expansion, said she believed Hutchinson would outline a plan that could win support from both sides. But she said she was unlikely to back something that didn’t eventually end the program.

“I think I could get behind a wind-down,” said Bledsoe, R-Rogers.

Hutchinson’s inaugural schedule Tuesday began with a service at Immanuel Baptist Church in west Little Rock, and was set to end with a ball in downtown Little Rock that night.

Money for the inaugural activities was raised through the Republican Party of Arkansas, which is required to file quarterly fundraising reports with the state. About two dozen donors were listed on the inaugural committee’s website as “Governor’s Circle” contributors who gave $25,000 or more. They included AT&T;, Tyson Foods, Wal-Mart and Entergy.


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

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