Republican gubernatorial candidates Asa Hutchinson and Curtis Coleman appeared back-to-back at the Clinton School of Public Service to speak to a gathering of more than 100 Delta leaders.

The two GOP candidates shared their ideas for moving the Delta forward, while their speeches showed contrasts between their positions on several key issues.

The two biggest distinctions centered on economic development and health care for Arkansans.

Coleman, a North Little Rock businessman, said he was opposed to the state investment in the Big River Steel project, which will locate in Mississippi County and produce up to 500 high-paying jobs. Coleman said he felt too many of the jobs would be held by out-of-state workers.

He also said it would have been more beneficial to take a $125 million bond program supporting Big River Steel and provide $1 million start-up grants to 125 entrepreneurs across the state.

“I believe our state will be so much stronger if we have 125 or 150 new companies start-up every year instead of one superproject once every generation,” Coleman said.

Coleman also reiterated his support for de-centralizing the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and pushing for more local job recruiting efforts.

Hutchinson, a former Third District Congressman, said he supported the Big River Steel project and would have advocated for it as Governor. He said the good-paying jobs and ancillary business activity would more than pay for the investment in the project.

Hutchinson also said the state needed to do more to push for high school and college graduates with skills in computer science. Claiming that knowledge-based jobs were critical to rising incomes and the jobs of the future, Hutchinson said he would be looking for new ways to increase those degrees if he is elected.

“Right now in Arkansas, we are one of 41 states in the country that does not give core curriculum credit for graduation for computer science class. That needs to be changed. I will change that and make computer science a priority for education in Arkansas. Because that’s where you’re going to create the jobs of the future, you’re going to create the entrepreneurs of the future as well,” Hutchinson said.

Both Hutchinson and Coleman differed on their approach to health care reform. Hutchinson said the “private option” plan devised by the state legislature was a “creative solution” and had many attractive qualities because of its private sector applications.

In an interview after his speech, Hutchinson made his strongest comments to date on the “private option” plan, saying he would have signed the bill into law as Governor. He also said he would have pushed for the plan to be dealt with in a special session to allow more legislative focus on details.

Coleman said he opposed the “private option” plan and stated he would like to find a way to more dramatically reduce Medicaid rolls. One suggestion he made was to find a way to pay rural doctors, particularly in the Delta, the same rate for services as more populated areas. He contended that this would incentivize health care in the Delta and rural Arkansas.

He also said that he would have advocated for a subsidy for rural hospitals to help them financially while his economic development ideas took root.

On Friday, Democratic gubernatorial candidates Mike Ross and Bill Halter are scheduled to speak to the Delta Grassroots Caucus.

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