Mr. Lieutenant Governor, President Pro Tem Hendren; Speaker Shepherd, and Members of the Arkansas General Assembly:
As I stand here today for the first time giving a State of the State address in the Senate chamber, I reflect on the extraordinary times in which we live.
We are here today for regular business, at a time in our world when everything seems irregular.
This is reflected in your Members being in the Stephens Center, miles away; and everyone here appropriately socially distanced.
These are difficult days because all that we enjoy about normal is suspended. So much of our nation is in free fall, and we don’t know when the safety harness will jolt us back to a soft landing.
These are days we come together. We unite our arms together, and partner together, so all Arkansans will have confidence in our steadiness, in our determination, and in our unity.
While I was undersecretary at Homeland Security, I worked to protect our country after the 9-11 attack from the next terrorist event. But this fight is different. There is not one attack but an attack on all 50 states, and our borders will not stop this virus.
This virus is deadly. It is highly contagious, and there is no proven cure. The best doctors in the world are working on an answer or a way to control this invisible killer that invades our land.
And so, these are difficult times.
As you know, I come from the Hill country of Arkansas and yet I have fallen in love with the beauty of the Delta and the timberland of South Arkansas.
And from my travels, I have observed something about Arkansans. We know how to live through adversity. We know how to survive. We relish our independence. And we care about each other.
Those are the qualities that will take us all through the current crisis in our nation. And that brings me to the State of our State.
The honest answer is that our economic condition is uncertain, but the state of our character has never been stronger. We are prepared to beat the silent enemy that haunts our hallways. We are prepared to be a neighbor and friend to each other even though we are physically apart.
Friends, this General Assembly has accomplished much. You have lowered taxes. You have supported economic growth. You gave us a historic highway plan, increased support for education, and transformed government to work in times just like these.
And now that we have been challenged by a threat that some compare to Pearl Harbor or the 9-11 attack, this same General Assembly has responded with a sense of urgency and determination.
Thank you for your action, and thank you for your support during this time.
As we enter this session, we are looking at a nation that is under attack. We have over 374,000 cases in the United States and over 12,000 deaths.
In Arkansas, today we have crossed the 1,000 mark for COVID-19 cases. People ask me, “When will we get through this.” As you know, no one really knows. But the University of Washington IHME is a very reliable source of one modeling projection. Their most-recent projections show Arkansas will peak on April 24.
It is interesting that 11 days ago, on March 27, the model predicted we would have 707 deaths in Arkansas. On April 6, the model was revised to reduce the predications on deaths down to 279.
Yesterday, we in Arkansas were at 18 deaths. Because of social distancing, protective masks, and following guidelines, we are working hard to reduce those projections even further. That is what we are doing together, and I applaud this General Assembly for you doing your part.
From an Arkansas standpoint, we have marshaled our resources to prepare for this fight. Thanks to your support, we have funded a supply of personal protective equipment for our front-line health care workers.
Thanks to you, we have funded a purchase of ventilators to be sure we have enough in the event there is a shortage in the future.
And we are prepared to do more. Let me assure every Arkansan that we will do all that is necessary to protect life and to come out of this pandemic with our face looking into the bright days of our future.
Now let me pause for a moment, and let me thank and acknowledge those who are on the front lines of this fight: I am proud, so very proud, of our emergency responders, our doctors, our nurses, our respiratory therapists, and our nursing home professionals. Please join me in giving them thanks.
Let me also express thanks to those in this General Assembly that have engaged in health care as part of their normal activities of life, and yet you have this responsibility as well.
Since I declared a public health emergency on March 11, four weeks ago, we have taken aggressive and unprecedented measures to stop the spread of this contagion.
• Bars and the state’s three casinos.
• Barbershops, hair salons, massage-therapy clinics, and tattoo parlors – all closed.
• Fitness centers, movie theaters, bowling alleys, and indoor amusement centers – all closed.
• State park lodges – closed; and we prohibited overnight camping in our state parks.
• We have limited gatherings to 10 or fewer people.
• We are practicing social distancing. And we’ve added to that the recommendation to wear a mask when social distancing is impractical or doesn’t work.
• We expanded telemedicine.
• I directed state employees to work remotely when possible.
• We suggested that companies allow their employees to work remotely as well.
But all of this has been done with a realization that these emergency actions have caused people to lose their jobs and their livelihood. It has caused some businesses to close and others to scale back. And in each one of these cases it is heartbreaking to me and to our state to see our fellow citizens pay the consequences in that fashion.
I expect that our unemployment claims will continue to rise, all the result of this historic pandemic. There has been nothing like it in our lifetime. We have processed over 110,000 claims to date.
For those who have suffered business losses, our message is that we are working to get financial assistance to you. In our bridge loan program, we have provided almost $3 million in assistance to 130 applicants. These are bridge loans until federal resources come to bear and help these businesses.
But let’s talk about the future just for a moment. We have learned some things from this national public health emergency.
First of all, we’ve learned that nothing beats face-to-face instruction in education. But teachers can teach remotely and students can learn remotely, and they are dedicated to that task. It all emphasizes the importance of high-speed broadband internet in our state for education and business. We need to continue to invest, and invest more to meet this need of the future.
In terms of healthcare, telemedicine not only works, but is a necessary part of access and affordability. We have seen that, and we need to expand it.
When it comes to higher education, the college campus atmosphere is so important to the quality of life of the student. But we need to reexamine the needs on our campuses, when we see the variety of the ways our students learn.
In the area of sports, I miss sports. I miss the spirit of competition. Young people build character, discipline and hard work from sports. I hope we get back to sports soon. But how will it change? Only time will tell.
In terms of government, the delivery of services to our citizens on line has proven to be not just a convenient option for some, but it has proven to be the only option in some circumstances. Let’s build that capacity even more. From SNAP benefits to unemployment insurance to driver’s licenses and other revenue office functions, let’s do all online that we can for efficiency and for savings and for the convenience of our citizens.
And then there is the economy. Our foundations are strong. Our foundations are not shaken. The infrastructure above it, may be a little bit. But our foundations are strong. There are new industries in the pipeline waiting to come here; there are other businesses waiting to build and to expand and to start hiring. We are not slowing down; we are just pausing, out of necessity.
We will recover quickly and energetically, because we believe in work, entrepreneurship, and global leadership.
And that brings me to the importance of this session.
I have submitted my balanced budget. But I need your help to trim it as a result of the revised forecast, which cut our anticipated state revenue by $205 million for next year.
My administration will take the necessary steps to reduce travel; freeze state employment numbers; and take other cost-saving measures.
We will maintain our commitment to funding public education, public safety, and Medicaid. But to do so, we will need to have some reserve funds with flexibility and oversight to be sure there is no gap in essential services to our citizens.
On the positive side, we have maintained our safety net for our citizens through public benefits that are important through this difficult time. We have continued to invest in economic growth opportunities. And we have not touched our Long-Term Reserve Fund of $152 million. We need those reserve funds for whatever the future brings.
I also want to thank you for passing legislation that transformed state government. It is now leaner and more agile. As a result, we can respond more quickly to unexpected events. And it seems like we have had our share of those lately.
We have learned through this public health emergency about how fragile life can be.
But we’ve also seen courage and compassion of Arkansans in action. Our nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, and EMTs are on the front lines, risking their lives every day.
I also want to thank the extraordinary and sacrificial work of Dr. Nate Smith and his team at the Department of Health, and Director A.J. Gary and his team at Emergency Management. Please join me in thanking them.
We see neighbors checking on neighbors, making grocery runs for those who can’t leave their house. Truckers are driving long hours to ensure the supply chain isn’t broken. Others are providing meals on the road so cross-country drivers can have an option to eat. Cafeteria workers are making sandwiches for the kids who count on school meals, and bus drivers are taking the meals to them.
Members of this assembly, we may make mistakes, but make no mistake – our eyes are fixed on our next opportunity, our next challenge, and our next future victories that are before us.
We will do what Americans and Arkansans have always done. We will be strong, and we will prevail.
Thank you. And especially thank you for your efforts during these difficult times.
May God bless and protect the United States of America and the people of Arkansas. Thank you.