Arkansas gubernatorial candidates Asa Hutchinson and Mike Ross spoke in back-to-back appearances to a Delta advocacy group to discuss issues of concern for the region and the state as a whole.
Hutchinson spoke first, reminding the Delta Grassroots Caucus that he had been a co-sponsor of the bill that created the Delta Regional Authority when he represented Arkansas’ Third District in Congress in 2000.
The Republican nominee for Governor discussed education and economic development reforms that he said were vital for advancing the Delta’s well-being.
“There’s no challenge that can’t be met without economic growth,” Hutchinson told the group.
Ross, who previously represented the Fourth Congressional District, said his vision for education and economic development would be a boost for the impoverished Delta region and a high priority for his campaign.
“I’m committed and I will pledge to work with anyone and everyone who will work with me to make this state an even better place to live, work and raise a family,” declared the Democratic nominee.
CHARITY AND CHRISTIANITY
The most obvious distinction between Ross and Hutchinson centered on support of the Private Option, Arkansas’ low-income health insurance alternative that uses Medicaid expansion dollars for private insurance plans.
Ross said he unequivocally supports the Private Option.
“I would have voted it, I would have signed it, and I will protect it,” Ross said to an applauding audience. He said it was crucial to the survival of rural hospitals and he said it was helping hard-working Arkansans who have been limited in their health care options. In describing the target groups the plan is predicted to help, Ross said the Private Option also appealed to his sense of righteousness.
“As a Christian, I think it’s the right thing to do,” Ross said. “I’m going to do my best as Governor to make sure we continue to fund it.”
Hutchinson has adopted a more cautious approach to the Private Option, reflecting the nature of the debate that has fractured his Republican base.
“When you look at the Private Option, we’re learning a great deal,” he said. “I’m optimistic that our legislators and our state will do the right thing with the 150,000 that have enrolled in the Private Option. We’ll do the right thing in terms of making the adjustments that are needed to reflect the values of Arkansas and to make sure this program is an incentive for people to work.”
He also stressed that the affordability of the Private Option would also drive the debate under his gubernatorial leadership.
While the federal government pays 100% of the costs of the Private Option in the first three years, in subsequent years, the state of Arkansas must bear a percentage of the expenses.
Hutchinson said in his travels on the campaign trail, he has found that the Private Option has been good for rural hospitals, but that the program has shifted some health care from charitable organizations to the government.
“You go across Arkansas and the Christian or the faith-based or the charitable care that doctors provide through health care clinics, free of charge to indigents, they no longer have a mission,” Hutchinson said. “That charitable care has been shifted to the government.”
“I’d like to see those charitable missions brought back together and say, ‘How can we renew a mission?’ and redefine it so we don’t lose that asset in our state of charitable giving for medical care as we continue to evaluate the Private Option,” he added.
COMMON CORE, COMMON CONCERNS
Hutchinson and Ross both expressed concerns about maintaining flexibility around Common Core, an education policy standard that has been at the center of controversy in recent months.
Initiated by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Common Core is a set of educational benchmarks that describe the skills students should have in English language arts and math. They have been adopted in a majority of states, including Arkansas.
Ross and Hutchinson both said they would charge their Education Commissioners to review Common Core. For both men, they expressed concerns that the standards must maintain flexibility in its implementation so that state and local school officials could meet specific needs and concerns.
“I’ve always been one who believes in local control and I believe that we need to have flexibility,” Ross said. He suggested that there is a lot of misinformation about Common Core in circulation.
“There’s people out there that want you to believe this has been pushed down by the federal government, this is something that Pres. Obama is responsible for. Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said, noting that governors of both stripes initiated Common Cause as well as business leaders like Bill Gates.
“We need to ensure that the state of Arkansas always has control over its curriculum,” Ross said.
“When it comes to Common Core, I pledge that we’re going to have a review of that,” Hutchinson said, emphasizing that high standards must be maintained, but flexibility would be important. “I’m going to be listening to the teachers, I’m going to be listening to the parents. I think we did have some problems with the implementation of that where we really didn’t bring in all of the stakeholders to have the buy-in on those new standards that we adopted.”
Hutchinson and Ross also shared concerns over diverting general revenue dollars into highway funding. The idea has been discussed in recent years as gas tax revenues have declined due to fuel efficiency straining the state highway budget as construction costs have risen.
The two gubernatorial candidates also expressed reservations on tapping more general revenue for Academic Challenge scholarships, which presently receive some state funding and a large portion of money from the scholarship lottery. Lottery revenues have been declining as the lottery has matured.
Ross spent time describing his pre-K program to the Delta group. He has proposed expanding the state’s pre-K access to a larger universe of families saying it is crucial to long-term economic health.
“We’re behind the curve on this. This is not some wild-eyed, radical, liberal idea,” said Ross. “Oklahoma, a pretty conservative state… in Oklahoma today, if parents want their kids in a pre-K classroom, there’s a seat for them. If Oklahoma can do it, we can do it. And we have to do it if we want to remain competitive with our neighbors in attracting the good-paying jobs of today and tomorrow.”
Ross wants to phase in the expansion of pre-K, which would carry a $37 million annual price tag when fully implemented.
“Everything starts with education. I said I want to be the ‘education governor.’ In doing so, that’s how you become the ‘jobs governor.’ Everything we do starts with education,” Ross said.
Although he supports current pre-K efforts, Hutchinson sharply differs from Ross on the issue.
Hutchinson contends that Ross’ plan is unaffordable and that the expansion would benefit families who shouldn’t receive a government handout.
“My position is why would we want to create a new government program when we’re not funding the existing program?” he asked. “I oppose creating a new program and expanding a program and benefitting those that are making up to $59,000 a year to provide free, taxpayer-funded pre-K education.”
Hutchinson said Gov. Mike Beebe has been unable to achieve an expansion of pre-K and he doubted Ross could do it.
“I think it’s the wrong direction for us. There is a lot better way for us to use that money and I think we need to concentrate on our pre-K program right now that is not adequately funded and that is my commitment,” said Hutchinson. “I support pre-K. I just don’t want to offer the voters something that is not the right direction for Arkansas in terms of the use of our taxpayers’ dollars.”
CRIME, MINIMUM WAGE
Hutchinson challenged the Delta Grassroots Caucus to study his positions on the state’s criminal justice system. The Republican candidate has rolled out a public safety plan aimed at reforming the parole system and addressing the state’s drug problems.
“That [crime] should be included in the challenges we face in the Delta,” Hutchinson said, touting drug treatment court funding and more effective re-entry programs for those leaving prison and wanting a job.
“That is economic development in the Delta. Whenever they’ve paid their price, they need assistance to be able to get a job and re-enter society and be taxpaying, productive citizens,” he emphasized.
A former head of the Drug Enforcement Agency and a former federal prosecutor, Hutchinson wants to pump $1.3 million into new efforts and tweak Act 570 of 2011. Act 570 was a comprehensive overhaul of the state’s sentencing and parole system passed by the legislature in the 2011 General Assembly.
Hutchinson said he would move the state’s drug czar back to a cabinet level position.
Ross said he was supported by 65 of the state’s 75 sheriffs and has pledged to roll out his vision for public safety in the near future.
He noted that as much as $80 million may be required to build a new state prison. With a backlog of nearly 3,000 inmates in county jails, a new prison might be able to accommodate up to 1,000 incarcerated.
“If we’re going to build another prison, there’s going to be prison reform,” Ross said of his upcoming proposal.
When asked about returning the state’s drug czar to a cabinet level post, Ross said, “You’re stealing my thunder.”
Ross also reiterated his support of the state minimum wage hike. Supporters say they have the signatures to qualify for the November ballot. Their initiative would raise the minimum wage to $8.50 over the next three years.
“I’ve endorsed that,” said Ross, who noted he had voted for minimum wage increases while in Congress. “I think it’s something I think we should do… At the ballot box, I plan to support it.”
Hutchinson said he wanted to address raising the minimum wage in next year’s legislative session. He said he preferred state lawmakers set the minimum wage versus an initiated act.
Later in the day, Hutchinson’s campaign also responded to a new TV ad that was launched Friday by the Democratic Governor’s Association.
The new DGA ad accuses Hutchinson of voting against a lower-income tax cut and wasting taxpayer money when he worked for the Bush administration. The ad says under Asa’s watch, the Transportation Security Administration spent nearly $461,000 on a banquet for a birthday party for employees.
The Hutchinson campaign said the ad was a sign of “desperation.” It issued a statement that said the ad “falsely claims” Hutchinson authorized wasteful spending.
“In fact, Asa Hutchinson did not authorize the spending and when the Inspector General reported the questionable spending, Hutchinson took action to stop the waste,” the Hutchinson campaign said.