In a wide-ranging speech to the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce's First Friday Breakfast today (June 7), U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., spoke about the housing market, the overall economic climate and dredging the Arkansas River channel as a way to increase exports from the state of Arkansas.
Pryor started the speech acknowledging the difficult economy experienced across the nation, saying the rebound, while not perfect, is starting to take place, especially in the housing market.
"For housing, which is one of the reasons we went into the tank in the first place, the housing market is recovering, there is no doubt about it. You can look at all the different kind of criteria that you look at on housing, whether that's home sales, prices, new home starts, etcetera – all of those are in positive territory."
According to Pryor, the industry has improved so drastically, it is showing its best numbers since 1993.
"It's getting as strong as it was before the recession, not that there's going to be another bubble, but it's getting traction, it's back on its feet, it's solid again, that's good."
Pryor said another sign of the improving economy was the rise in consumer confidence.
"I don't know if you saw this, but last month consumer confidence increased to 76.2% and man, it was down way, way low. I'm not sure how low it got, but it was like in the 20s or something," he said.
With the consumer confidence index rising, Pryor said spending, hiring and other trends should continue to trend up.
His speech took place at the same time that the U.S. Department of Labor released May employment numbers, showing the unemployment rate increasing to 7.6% nationwide, an increase of 0.1% from April.
Pryor said while he could see improvements in the economy, nationally and at home in Arkansas, it was not the end of the road. He said there was still a lot of work to do.
"So we see these very positive signs around the nation, and we need to remember that we can always have progress, we can always do better, we can always work harder and get more, but still things are moving in the right direction."
He said as the economy continues to improve, he would like to see continued growth in the Fort Smith area. The area, Pryor said, was healthy and growing and had a lot to offer the business community, including a "trained workforce" and strong local leadership within both government and the private sector.
Among the many recent accomplishments to Fort Smith's credit, he cited the announcement of hundreds of jobs coming to Fort Smith through HMA, the parent company of Sparks Regional Medical Center, along with 90 jobs expected to be created at Gerber Products and the continued progress taking place on the planned-U.S. Marshal's Museum along the banks of the Arkansas River near downtown.
Pryor said his goal as a Senator is not just to cast votes to help the citizens of his home state, but to be an active participant in bringing jobs and economic growth to the area.
"Just tell me what I need to do and I'll do it," he said. "Let me just say this – a lot of times, people think of their senator and all they do is vote, and that is an important part of what I do. … but there's more to this job than just voting."
A project Pryor said he is focusing a lot of his energy on is getting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the Arkansas River channel to a 12-foot depth in order to bring in more barge traffic along the river. He said by having the deeper river, trade could increase not only along the Arkansas portion of the river, but also up into Oklahoma.
The only problem? Money.
In an era marked by decreasing spending and eliminating earmarks, or pork, finding the estimated $188 million to complete the project has become a tedious process, Pryor admitted. But the project will move forward, he said, even if it doesn't happen by 2015, the date President Barack Obama had designated as the date he would have liked to have seen American exports double in volume.
Following the speech, Pryor took answers from the public and the press.
Asked about a television commercial that attacks his vote against mandatory background checks for all gun purchases, Pryor said nothing in the Manchin-Toomey Bill would have stopped an event like the Sandy Hook School Shooting and he did not think an attack ad by a Democrat (former Democratic Party of Arkansas Chief Financial Officer Angela Bradford-Barnes) showed a rift within his own party.
"I think on that bill that they're talking about, the context of that ad is (former Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman) Bill Gwatney's (shooting) death, and that was a sad day – I was actually in the hospital room when he died. It was a sad day, sad day for Arkansas,” Pryor said. “But that bill, the Manchin-Toomey Bill, would have done nothing to prevent it, what happened to Bill Gwatney. Just nothing. There's nothing in there. It's almost insulting to me. It is insulting to me that they would choose his death to make a political issue out of it on an issue where they have no solution at all.”
Special interest groups were also discussed after the speech, with Pryor conceding defeat in the area of spending against such groups.
"You're going to have all of these third party out-of-state groups, most of them you have no idea where their money's coming from or who's really behind them, you're going to have all of these groups say all these things about me. We'll run ads and we'll do our best to challenge that. There's no way that I can compete with them on the money. They're going to have so much money,” Pryor said.
Pryor also expressed shock that he is already running campaign ads a year and a half before the election, at a time when he does not even have a Republican opponent, though speculation has placed U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, as a potential candidate in next year's election, though he would not acknowledge Cotton by name.
"No, I never thought that would happen, but I never thought they were going to spend a million dollars against me and here we are 17 months (out) and I don't have an opponent. …whoever's going to run, they're going to be well-qualified, well-financed campaign. I can almost guarantee you that whoever runs on the Republican side will have as much or more (money) than I will. It's just the reality of it. It's just the way things work now. I wish we could fix the money in campaigns. I really wish that when I run for re-election, it could be kind of a one-on-one campaign, all Arkansas money, all Arkansas issues, and just go after it because I feel like that's really the way the system was designed."