Fort Smith, NWA area Senate candidates attend forum

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 105 views 

Medicaid shortfalls, the proposed severance tax increase, the business outlook in Arkansas, and education and child advocacy, were the main issues addressed during a League of Women Voters (LWV) Candidate Forum held in Fort Smith on Monday (April 9).

Arkansas State Senatorial Candidates Rick Green (District 9), Sen. Bruce Holland (District 9), and Bill Coleman (District 5) — all Republicans — attended the forum.

The districts are new. District 9 includes parts of Crawford, Scott and Sebastian Counties, and District 5 includes parts of Crawford, Madison and Washington Counties.

Green and Holland face each other in the May 22 primary, while Coleman will take on Brian King, who was not in attendance due to “issues with his father’s health,” according to LWV President Jeannie Cole.

Had King been able to attend, it’s likely he wouldn’t have faced any conflict from his opponent as Coleman referred to King as “a good conservative individual” he has “known for some time.” Holland and Green expressed similar sentiments regarding any potential conflict they share.

“We never wanted to run against one another. The best way to defeat one of us is to put us in the same race. I’ve got a good strong conservative voting record. I’ve served my constituents well. The most important thing is to serve your community, and I feel I’ve done that,” Holland said.

Green added, “Senator Holland and I have some differences. I don’t know of any particulars that I’d choose to point out, but I choose not to be negative, and I’d rather run on what I want to do. I want to represent the people of my area number one, and then second is my party.”

In addition to the words of respect, Holland, Green, and Coleman did not appear to differ on any of the issues.

According to the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (ACHI), Arkansas could soon face a “$60 million Medicaid budget shortfall.”

Asked to address where they stand on the issue, all of the candidates seemed unwilling to entertain a tax increase.

“Whatever the legislature decides, we don’t punish our elderly or our children,” Green explained. “I believe we should be cutting areas where there is waste. Those are things we’ve got to look at. I don’t think Arkansas will support an increase, nor do I. It’s just important that we protect those people, who have the benefit now, that are elderly or our children, and I will not support anything that would hurt them.”

Holland added, “We need to be looking at all the programs to see what’s being wasted. When you pass a new bill, you need to look at some other mandate that isn’t working, and clean up the waste. We need to try and find the money in other agencies where we can save. It’s going to be a challenge to do that without raising taxes, but that’s what we’re going to try to do.”

All three candidates in attendance opposed the proposal by Sheffield Nelson to increase the state’s severance tax on natural gas companies.

“I believe it hurts future exploration in Arkansas, particularly in areas where you have the Fayetteville shales. As far as fracking, we have to be looking at how that affects our water supply, which is such a precious mineral here in Arkansas, but I haven’t supported any previous increase and oppose Sheffield Nelson’s,” Green said.

Holland added, “We already have one of the highest severance taxes in the nation. Natural gas in Arkansas is a strong industry, and right now, prices are depressed, and those companies are doing their best to stay in business as it is. We need to keep them here in Arkansas and keep people working.”

Coleman agreed with his fellow Republicans, stating, “I am strongly opposed to this proposed increase. It would shut things down. Production is already not going on nearly as much as it was at one time, and the severance tax increase would probably shut it down completely. It’s important we keep those jobs going. The economy will eventually come back, and this is something we don’t need to be raising taxes on.”

Coleman also agreed that fracking should be “environmentally sound,” but said he believed “the natural gas industry are conscious of that.”

Green, Coleman, and Holland, all banged the drum for job growth as a top priority upon election. Green cited his own previous support of legislation that “established the groundwork funding for RITA (Regional Intermodal Transportation Association),” he said.

Green spoke heavily in favor of the 12-foot channel project currently being championed by RITA and examined by the Army Corps of Engineers.

“I can’t emphasize enough how close we are to an economic boom,” Green said. “Walmart and other businesses (that could use the Arkansas River for transport) are excited about what is happening in the River Valley.”

Holland touted his own record of supporting utility tax cuts for businesses as incentive for relocation.

“I want to continue to make the environment better for businesses to come here. With Arkansas having a balanced budget, we need to be recruiting companies from Illinois and California, where state budgets are out of control. Legislatively, we’ve just got to create a better environment to bring those businesses to Arkansas,” Holland said.

Coleman agreed. “My emphasis will be on creating jobs and smoothing a pathway for small businesses to get rid of the uncertainty they have in their operations and expanding their workforce. I talk to small business owners every day, who are saying the same thing: we’re on hold until we find out what’s going to happen.”

Coleman continued: “Nationwide small businesses create most of the new jobs in this country, and they do so in Arkansas. There are some things we can do in state government to make their lives a little bit easier, and let them worry about running their businesses instead of all the paperwork and the red tape that goes along with it.”

The issue of education and child advocacy touched a nerve with Green, who shared his own experience of being a grandparent forced to raise a grandchild as his own.

“We’re raising one of our grandchildren. We had a son, who got involved with prescription drug use, and we had to go and get our grandchild. It’s very hard to raise him at our age, but we’re determined we’re going to give him the opportunity he didn’t get from his parents,” Green said.

Green emphasized that the problem of child neglect and abuse is “not confined to one section or area.”

“It’s real folks. It’s going to affect the future of this area. And I will support all legislation that works against people, who hurt children,” Green said.

Green added that “probably the biggest problem with education is that you can’t legislate how to raise kids. That would be the simplest way to improve our education system, but you can’t do that.”

“Teachers go to school to teach, but they end up becoming mom, good friend, or counselor, with very little ability to help out,” Green said.

Green believes there should be “less testing, more teaching.”

Holland and Coleman were in agreement that more needed to be done to give students an equal chance at success.

Holland wanted to assess the lottery scholarship program to make sure “the money is being spent in the most efficient manner possible,” adding that “studies show if you don’t make a 23, 24, 25, or higher on the ACT, your chances for success are greatly diminished. We should give more to the kids, who’ll get the most good out of it.”

Coleman noted a fear that “we’re getting away from our trades. Lots of students, when they get out, they’re a lot better equipped for a trade school, and there is no need to back off of that.”

The next LWV candidate forum will take place April 23 at Golden Corral and feature District 76 Arkansas House of Representatives candidates Rep. Denny Altes, R-Fort Smith, and Mat Pitsch.