- Associated Press - Saturday, October 29, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas’ support for War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock amounts to barely a fraction of the state’s $5.3 billion budget, and efforts to cut the facility’s funding would hardly pay for some of the state’s biggest unmet needs or the competing tax cut proposals lawmakers will face next year. But you wouldn’t have guessed that from a nearly packed room Gov. Asa Hutchinson faced as he announced his proposal for the future of the 68-year-old stadium.

“With this crowd, we must be talking football or something exciting,” Hutchinson said at the start of his news conference last week.

Hutchinson’s proposal last week to put War Memorial Stadium under the state Parks and Tourism Department’s control was an attempt to reassure patrons of the stadium, known for hosting University of Arkansas Razorbacks games and high school football championships, that he’s not giving up on the facility even as he calls for cutting its funding. It’s also an attempt to reassure them there’s a plan for the stadium if the Razorbacks decide they no longer want to host one game there each season.

Hutchinson’s plan, unveiled last week, came days after word came out that he wanted to cut the facility’s funding from $900,000 to about $448,000 for the fiscal year starting July 1, 2018. In addition to the reorganization, the Republican governor said he’ll use discretionary funds to pay for a study by a nationally recognized stadium consultant to make recommendations about its future.

War Memorial Stadium is a critical part of our lifeblood as well as our economic future,” Hutchinson said.

The debate over the future of War Memorial won’t be the first time the stadium has factored into the legislative agenda. Republican state Sen. Bart Hester targeted the facility last year, proposing cutting off the stadium’s state funding along with other reductions. His suggestion ultimately never materialized.

If cutting War Memorial’s funding is about finding money for other needs or making state government leaner, it’s a mostly symbolic gesture. The nearly $900,000 it gets from Arkansas pales compared to the tax cuts Hutchinson, Hester and other Republicans are likely to weigh during next year’s session. After lawmakers approved his $102 million income tax reduction last year, Hutchinson has said he’ll seek another cut but won’t say how much it’ll be. Hester last week proposed a $105 million income tax cut, and other lawmakers are likely to file similar bills next year.

Hutchinson, who has pushed for reorganization elsewhere in state government, told reporters the move wasn’t about funding his tax cut plan. He’s noted that the stadium historically operated without general revenue from the state until about 2006, and said he wants to move War Memorial toward “self-sufficiency.”

“It’s just simply a matter of managing state government and managing agencies,” Hutchinson said.

The move also comes as the stadium faces an uncertain future as an annual home for a Razorbacks football game. The University of Arkansas is under contract to play one game at War Memorial each season until 2018, but no deal has been announced beyond that. Hutchinson said he’d like to see the school continue that tradition, but acknowledged that the final call is up to UA.

It’s a sentiment shared by state Parks and Tourism Director Kane Webb, who remembered attending his first college football game at War Memorial Stadium. Webb told reporters he’d like to see the tradition of the Razorbacks playing there continue, suggesting it would be ideal for the final game of the season when classes are out and students are no longer in Fayetteville. But Webb said the move was about ensuring a future for the stadium no matter what the school decides.

“We have to prepare for life with or without the Hogs,” Webb said.

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

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