LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — By letting a measure become law without his signature to prohibit local governments from expanding anti-discrimination protections, Gov. Asa Hutchinson is straddling the debate over a proposal being cast as endorsing bias against gays and lesbians.
He's also tacitly acknowledging that Arkansas governors are easily outgunned in veto override fights with the state Legislature.
Hutchinson, a Republican, last week allowed a bill to become law that would prohibit cities and counties from expanding anti-discrimination protections beyond what's already covered in state law. It's a move that effectively bans local governments from adding protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity, which aren't included in Arkansas' civil rights protections.
"As governor, I recognize the desire to prevent burdensome regulations on businesses across the state," Hutchinson said after the measure received final approval in the House last month. "However, I am concerned about the loss of local control. For that reason, I am allowing the bill to become law without my signature."
With that decision, Hutchinson joined a long line of governors who have chosen Door No. 3 rather than risk a fight they are likely to lose. Under Arkansas' constitution, a governor has five days to sign or veto legislation once it reaches his desk. If he does nothing, it becomes law without any action. If he vetoes it, legislators need only a simple majority to override him.
Letting the clock run out is a convenient way for governors to register objections to a measure without picking a fight with the Legislature. It's an option former Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, used multiple times throughout his 10½ years in office while facing a Legislature dominated by Democrats.
"It doesn't help the legislative process to veto a bill just to have it overridden," Huckabee said after not signing legislation that cleared the way for local voters to approve video poker and other electronic gambling at a Hot Springs horse track and a West Memphis dog track. It was among several bills related to gambling or drinking that the Southern Baptist preacher allowed into law.
Huckabee also allowed a tax increase to become law without his signature in response to the long-running Lake View school funding case, saying he believed lawmakers should have obtained more significant reforms in exchange for the hike.
Former Gov. Mike Beebe had planned to use the unsigned route in 2013 for a measure making the state's concealed carry handgun permit list exempt from public records laws, but then-Lt. Gov. Mark Darr signed the bill into law when Beebe was out of state. The Republican's decision to do so rankled the Democratic governor, who said he'd have trouble trusting Darr enough to leave the state again.
Hutchinson's complaints about the limits on anti-discrimination ordinances infringing on local control echoed the complaints of Democrats, who accused Republicans backing the measure of hypocrisy after campaign rhetoric about fighting government overreach.
But what he was lacking was a division within his own party or the business community, which remained mostly silent on the measure before it arrived on his desk. Retail giant Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, issued a statement the day the measure became law saying it sent the wrong message about Arkansas.
"It was about an electoral base that was supportive of this and I think really the absence of any political cover for him to do something different," said Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College in Conway.
Wal-Mart's concerns about the law, and related criticism of a related "conscience protection" measure, may be offering Hutchinson some of that political cover now. The Republican governor said he had reservations about the proposal aimed at preventing state and local government from infringing on someone's religious beliefs, and a day later the proposal failed before a Senate panel.
The bigger test may be how often Hutchinson may let measures go into law without his signature. It's an approach that's made more sense for governors dealing with a rival party controlling the Legislature, like Huckabee faced throughout his tenure and Beebe had in his final two years in office.
"I think Hutchinson is going to be disadvantaged in trying to distance himself from what a Republican legislature is pushing through," said Hal Bass, a political science professor at Ouachita Baptist University.
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ademillo
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