By TESS VRBIN | Arkansas Advocate
Arkansas Gov.-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced Tuesday that she will nominate Mike Mills, the founder and owner of the state’s first log cabin resort, to run the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.
Mills is Sanders’ second cabinet appointee after Capt. Mike Hagar, the State Police’s Troop A commander, whom Sanders announced Monday as her pick for secretary of the Department of Public Safety. The newly elected Republican will nominate a total of 15 cabinet secretaries.
At a news conference in Little Rock, Sanders hailed Arkansas’ 53 state parks as “one of the best parts of our state,” and said Mills will help “expand and grow the tourism industry in a way that Arkansas has never done before.”
“There is nobody who has spent more time living, loving, enjoying and promoting the Natural State than Mike Mills,” Sanders said.
Mills founded the Buffalo Outdoor Center in Newton County in 1976. The resort has seen more than 12 million guests, brought Arkansas more than $1,000,000 in tourism tax revenue and donated over $40,000 to the state’s Tourism Development Foundation, according to a news release from Sanders’ office. He is also a board member in the Parks department’s Office of Outdoor Recreation, and he spent 18 years on the Arkansas Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission.
He was inducted into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame in 2018.
Mills said he is “deeply, deeply grateful” for the nomination. In response to a question from a reporter, he said he does not have “specific plans at this point” for the department but hopes to “take the department to a higher level.”
“Today under this new administration, I feel like Arkansas is going to be better and better and better,” Mills said.
Outgoing Gov. Asa Hutchinson led an effort in 2019 to reorganize state government into 15 cabinet-level agencies. Sanders commended Stacy Hurst, the current Parks, Heritage and Tourism secretary, for handling the consolidation of multiple offices, and Mills said the department has 3,007 employees.
The agency’s Parks division manages more than 50 state parks and promotes the state as a tourist destination.
The Heritage division preserves and promotes the state’s natural and cultural history, with four museums and four cultural preservation agencies.
The tourism division promotes travel to Arkansas.
Suzanne Grobmyer, executive director of the Arkansas Parks and Recreation Foundation, has agreed to be Mills’ chief of staff, Sanders said.
A 1996 Arkansas constitutional amendment raised sales tax by ⅛ of a cent to fund land conservation. Sanders is a vocal proponent of lowering taxes, including the eventual “phasing out” of the state income tax.
Sanders was asked Tuesday if she would support the elimination of the state’s grocery tax, currently 1 ⅜ cents plus the ⅛ conservation tax. She reiterated her position on income tax as a whole.
“I think [eliminating it] is one of the best ways we can help every Arkansan, and so that will be my focus when it comes to reducing taxes here in the state,” she said.
Sanders also plans to focus on “bold” education reform and hopes to be known as the “education governor” after what she hopes will be two full terms in office, she said.
She worked in former President George W. Bush’s Department of Education, and she said on the campaign trail that she hopes to raise literacy rates among Arkansas elementary schoolers. She has also said education should prepare people for the workforce, not “a lifetime of government dependency.”
During Monday’s cabinet announcement, Sanders used similar language about public safety that she did while campaigning, saying crime in cities is “out of control” and the “far left” has demonized law enforcement.
“There’s no surprise that some of the first announcements I’ve made when it comes to the cabinet are on Public Safety and Parks, Heritage and Tourism, because I’m making sure you understand what my priorities are, starting with those two,” Sanders said Tuesday.