Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) announced the formation of his Economic Recovery Task Force on April 18. The 35-person committee is charged with developing a strategy to safely reopen Arkansas' economy as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
It's been dominated by business concerns from the start. Of the group's 35 members, at least 18 represent business or industry interests — including the state Chamber of Commerce, the Arkansas Hospitality Association, and The Poultry Federation. Other members include representatives of state agencies and religious organizations, but there are none representing labor or grassroots organizations. Hutchinson appointed Steuart Walton — the grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton and a current member of Walmart's board of directors — to chair the task force.
Walton is the founding chair of RZC Investments and a principal in The Runway Group, a holding company that invests in hospitality, real estate, and other cultural attractions in Northwest Arkansas, where Walmart's corporate headquarters are located. The Walton family dominates philanthropy and economic development in the region, and Steuart Walton has been a generous donor to the Arkansas Republican Party as well as to Hutchinson's campaign. Task force members and the organizations they represent have contributed at least $130,000 to Hutchinson's three campaigns for public office.
Walton's influence on the task force extends beyond his chairmanship. According to meeting minutes Facing South obtained via a public records request, three of The Runway Group's employees have been staffing the Economic Recovery Task Force. And two other people with Walton ties have also attended committee meetings as staff; minutes from the group's first meeting on April 21 refer to three of the five collectively as the "Walton Team."
The Runway Group employees staffing the task force are CEO Chad Yoes, Vice President Mike Malone, and Communications Director Krista Cupp. Before coming to Runway, Yoes was a vice president at Walmart, where he worked for over 17 years. Malone previously served as president of the Northwest Arkansas Council, a regional economic development organization. And Cupp previously worked for the National Rifle Association and Tyson Foods, a meat-processing company based in Arkansas.
The other members of the task force's "Walton Team" are Angie Cooper and Ryan Baird. Cooper is a chief program officer at Heartland Forward, a regional think tank spearheaded and funded by the Walton Family Foundation; she spent nearly 17 years working in government relations for Walmart, according to her LinkedIn page. Since 2016, Baird has been the advocacy director for Leadership for the Future, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit started by Steuart Walton and his brother Tom "to reframe Northwest Arkansas's community priorities through a systematic effort to educate current elected officials, cultivate community leaders, and support policy issues," according to its public tax forms. It paid Walton Enterprises, the family office that serves the personal and business needs of the family of Sam and Helen Walton, $240,000 for administrative expenses in 2018.
According to minutes reviewed by Facing South, the Walton Team has worked with the governor's office and members of the task force to prepare much of the task force's most prominent public-facing material. That includes the website arkansasready.com, which aggregates information and government regulations for businesses and consumers about mitigating the spread of COVID-19, and the task force's interim report, which was published on May 28. Their roles on the task force have not been previously reported.
A spokesperson for the Runway Group told Facing South that the team members "volunteered their time for administrative tasks to support the governor's Economic Recovery Task Force." Heartland Forward did not return a request for comment, and a phone call to the number listed on Leadership for the Future's tax documents was answered by the Walton Family Foundation's voicemail. The governor's office did not respond to requests for comment.
The presence of people with Walton ties on the task force and its staff does not appear to have resulted in any special treatment for Walmart. But it shows how closely intertwined Arkansas' state government is with the state's major businesses — a relationship on vivid display as Hutchinson appeared for daily briefings for weeks in front of a backdrop that declared "Arkansas: Ready for Business."
"The makeup of the advisory council is completely, completely skewed towards giant corporate folks," said Bill Kopsky, the executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, a nonprofit that organizes with grassroots communities across the state. "What the governor has done is surrounded himself only with those people, and so there is no debate. They're all in their own ideological echo chamber, and it's led to disastrous policy."
Together for Arkansas?
The composition of Arkansas' economic recovery task force stands out among similar efforts in other states. California Gov. Gavin Newsom's (D) task force on business and jobs, for instance, includes representation from across the labor, business, and health care sectors, including several union leaders. The COVID-19 response task force established by Gov. Roy Cooper (D) in North Carolina has an explicit focus on "economic stability, health disparities, and environmental justice."
"The whole point of a functioning democracy is all those different interest groups, all those different perspectives are all supposed to have voice and vehicle, and they've all been cut out of the process" in Arkansas, Kopsky said. Hutchinson's task force is in line with those established by other Republican governors in the South, including Greg Abbott's in Texas, which is stacked with business leaders, and Kay Ivey's in Alabama, which looks much the same.
Facing South's review of Arkansas' task force minutes from April through June shows it has placed its emphasis thus far on ensuring good conditions for resuming business — with less attention paid to ensuring good conditions for the people who work in them. Arkansas is one of the few states where the governor never instituted a stay-at-home order and did not mandate a shutdown of retail establishments. While Hutchinson ordered restaurants, gyms, and barber shops to close in March, he allowed them to reopen in May with capacity restrictions. Arkansas was not under a statewide mask mandate until earlier this week.
In the task force's second meeting on April 28, Chair Steuart Walton told members that it had two goals, according to meeting minutes: "to provide guidance to businesses and employees of businesses as to when and how to safely reopen and in what environment" and "to build employer, employee, and customer confidence." The task force formed three committees that met regularly over the next two months: one focused on agriculture, grocers, education, and the service sector; another on tourism, health care, and hospitality; and the third on commerce.
In early months, the state's COVID-19 numbers were low, and the widespread sentiment among the business leaders on the task force was that they needed to convince employees to get back to work and consumers to shop. When the task force met with Secretary Nate Smith of the Arkansas Department of Health on April 28, conversation focused on the feasibility of a data-driven approach to keeping Arkansas' economy as open for business as possible while minimizing the virus's spread. At other meetings, members of the task force discussed how to create safe work environments, including measures like obtaining personal protective equipment, social distancing, and placing sanitizing stations around stores, gyms, and hotels.
Guests invited to address committee meetings have included Tyson Foods Chair John Tyson and Walmart Vice President Dan Bartlett. Another guest was U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, an Arkansas Republican whose top campaign contributor is Walmart and who has also received $11,000 in contributions from Steuart Walton, according to followthemoney.org.
The commerce committee had three primary concerns, according to the minutes: implementing liability protection for businesses whose employees or customers contract COVID-19; reopening child care facilities so parents could return to their jobs; and targeting what many members viewed as too-generous federal unemployment assistance. The Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, a temporary increase in unemployment benefits that provides an extra $600 per week to people collecting unemployment, was providing higher income than the state's $10 hourly minimum wage in some cases, and task force members said that made it difficult for businesses to convince workers to come back to the jobs they'd been laid off from.
Randy Zook, president of the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce, repeatedly called for employer liability protections, and spearheaded a letter signed by several trade and industry organizations asking the governor to implement them. During the committee's April 28 meeting, Zook said that "many of the businesses represented by the task force may easily get in the crossfire” of liability lawsuits." At the May 7 meeting, he suggested the committee look into putting together a public service announcement that "lays out the bare and reassuring facts about returning to work." And when the group met on May 13, Womack spoke at length about liability protections at the federal level; he called them a "red line" that congressional Republicans would demand from any further federal legislation responding to COVID-19. The task force's interim report included a page dedicated to advocating for liability protections, which they said should be "targeted" and not apply in the case of negligence, intentional conduct, or bad faith.
Hutchinson signed an executive order exempting businesses from liability related to the spread of COVID-19 on June 15, one of several immunity protection measures pushed by politicians of both parties across the South.
The rush to reopen Arkansas has slowed in recent weeks. At a May 15 meeting of the task force, Montine McNulty of the Arkansas Hospitality Association sounded the alarm about the safety of reopening restaurants, noting that "many Arkansas citizens are disregarding masks and social distancing guidelines." In early June the state's COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations began climbing dramatically, and on June 25 Hutchinson paused the state's reopening.
There are hints Hutchinson may be reconsidering his commerce-first approach to managing the pandemic. When asked at a press conference this week whether he would consider shutting down businesses, he said "every option is always on the table." And on July 20, the state's "Ready for Business" backdrop at the governor's daily COVID-19 press briefings had been replaced. The new one reads, "Together for Arkansas."
A previous version of this story misstated Steuart Walton's net worth.