Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday (May 22) named his 15 new cabinet secretaries who will be tasked with overhauling and then streamlining state government for the first time since former Gov. Dale Bumpers was in office in the early 1970s.
In one of his infrequent “pen-and-pad” sessions with reporters at his state Capitol office, Hutchinson said the new cabinet members will not only implement his transformation plan to reduce 42 departments of government down to 15, but will also serve as key advisers on major issues facing the state of Arkansas.
“This reflects the history of this moment that this hasn’t been done in 50 years in Arkansas. The 15 cabinet positions will reflect a much more close-knit group of people that will help guide state government. I look at them as not only leading their particular department but also being close counselors to me in the broad mission of state government,” Hutchinson said, harkening back to President Abraham Lincoln’s administration.
The new cabinet secretaries include:
Department of Agriculture: Wes Ward
Department of Commerce: Mike Preston
Department of Corrections: Wendy Kelley
Department of Education; Johnny Key
Department of Energy & Environment: Becky W. Keough
Department of Finance & Administration: Larry Walther
Department of Health: Dr. Nathaniel Smith
Department of Human Services: Cindy Gillespie
Department of Inspector General: Elizabeth Thomas Smith
Department of Labor & Licensing: Daryl Bassett
Department of the Military: Major General Mark Berry
Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism: Stacy Hurst
Department of Public Safety: Jami Cook
Department of Transformation & Shared Services: Amy Fecher
Department of Veterans Affairs: Colonel (Ret.) Nate Todd
Hutchinson’s announcement comes six weeks after state lawmakers adjourned the 92nd General Assembly. On April 10, lawmakers approved the 2,047-page House Bill 1763, which will create the Transformation and Efficiencies Act of 2019, or Act 910.
Since taking office in 2015, Hutchinson and his staff have moved forward with a long list of ways to downsize state operations. Following the fiscal session in 2018, the governor first announced plans to present his far-reaching transformation plan to reduce by 50% the number of cabinet-level agencies in state government to the General Assembly for the 2019 legislative session.
There are now 42 cabinet-level agencies reporting directly to the governor. Hutchinson said the new plans will have 15 secretaries that report to him with the goal of more efficient delivery of services and unraveling the task of overseeing the more than 200 agencies, boards and commissions that report to him.
Under the omnibus legislation that will take effect at the beginning of fiscal 2020 on July 1, Hutchinson said, the new secretaries will be working with their own internal “transformation action teams” to begin identifying potential areas of efficiencies and expectations within each department. During their first 45 days on the job, the new secretaries will also begin aligning the 27 sub-cabinets of the former department heads.
“This can be done with no new positions and no new dollars,” stressed Hutchinson.
Between now and July 1, the newly named cabinet secretaries will undergo training led by the state’s Chief Transformation Officer Amy Fecher to fully understand the omnibus legislation approved by the lawmakers in April. Hutchinson said he will also participate in those training sessions to familiarize his new secretaries with their new roles in reporting directly to him as the state’s CEO.
He also reiterated testimony he made before the Senate State Agencies and Government Affairs Committee, which first took up the omnibus transformation legislation only eight days after the 2019 session began on Jan. 22, that a smaller and more efficient state government would lead to annual savings of more than $15 million.
Among the new cabinet secretaries, total salaries will amount to $2,589,302, which is an additional cost of $154,302 that will be absorbed into each department’s own budget. Among the 15 positions, seven will be held by women, including Department of Human Services Secretary Cindy Gillespie with the highest salary at $287,245, up nearly $4,235 from her current salary. At the low range, Agriculture and Veterans Affairs Secretaries Wes Ward and Nate Todd, respectively, will see an increase of $9,000 up to $132,000.
Other key appointments include Arkansas Economic Development Director Mike Preston taking over as Secretary of the newly created Department of Commerce. Johnny Key, former commissioner of the state Department of Education, will now oversee at education-related agencies as secretary of the new department with the same name.
Becky Keogh, director of the state Department of Environmental Quality, will serve as secretary of the newly named Department of Energy and Environment. Wendy Kelley and Dr. Nathaniel Smith will serve as the new secretaries of Departments of Corrections and Health, respectively, while Department of Finance & Administration Director Larry Walther will hold the same position at the cabinet level.
Former Department of Workforce Services Director Daryl Bassett will oversee the newly created Department of Labor and Licensing. Bassett was selected to lead the new department over the current Department of Labor Director Leon Jones, who the governor said will be offered another position within his administration.
Other appointments include Stacy Hurst, currently serving as director of the state Department of Arkansas Heritage, as the new secretary of the state Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism. Former state Parks & Tourism Director Kane Webb left state government in December to take a position with Walmart.
Transformation chief Fecher will now serve as secretary of the newly created Department of Transformation and Shared Services. Jami Cook, the director of the Arkansas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training, will become secretary of the Department of Public Safety. That agency will oversee the Arkansas State Police, but Hutchinson said current Director William Bryant will continue to report directly to him.
Major Gen. Mark Berry, adjutant general for the state’s National Guard unit, will become the new secretary of the Department of the Military. Elizabeth Smith, the state’s Medicaid Inspector General, will remain in that position while also taking over new duties as secretary of the newly created Department of the Inspector General.
In 1972, then-Democratic Gov. Dale Bumpers led an effort to reduce the number of state agencies from 60 to 13 major departments. However, over the next 50 years, state government bureaucracy has grown to include more than 200 boards and commissions on top of the 42 cabinet-level agencies.
Hutchinson’s new initiative began with Senate Bill 1202 that former Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, sponsored in 2015. The bill directed the executive branch to consider this type of reform in the organization of state agencies. The Senate bill also called for the creation of the Transformation Advisory Board (TAB), which the governor created in February 2017 and asked 15 people in public service and private industry to serve on the board voluntarily to assist the chief transformation officer in evaluating proposals and making recommendations to the Governor on savings opportunities.
The transformation plan was one of the four key legislative proposals, known as the four T’s, which Hutchinson pinpointed as part of his broad agenda at the beginning of the session. The other three proposals that were all approved by the legislature included pay raises for teachers, a $97 million “5.9 plan” that cut the state’s top marginal tax rate, and a $300 transportation funding bill that will pay for state highway maintenance.