McDaniel talks health care, ballot issues, execution law

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 127 views 

Attorney General Dustin McDaniel (D), already a candidate for Governor in 2014, appeared on the latest live-stream installment of Talk Politics to discuss the federal health care ruling, Arkansas’ execution law, and the current slate of ballot initiatives.

McDaniel said he wasn’t shocked by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of the individual mandate of the federal health care law.

“I didn’t find it surprising. I’ve said a long time ago, since the days of Herod, if the government takes money from you, it’s a tax,” McDaniel said.

When asked if he regretted not involving Arkansas in a lawsuit from other states’ attorneys general on the matter, McDaniel said he stood by his decision to remain out of the case.

“I think we made the right call. We got the same answer as every one else at the exact same day at the exact same minute,” he said. “But we didn’t have to spend any additional money on it.”

McDaniel said his office — and taxpayers — would have had to pay for travel expenses for an attorney to go to court appearances and briefings if it had joined a lawsuit.

A key provision of the Supreme Court ruling allowed states to not be penalized for opting out of a Medicaid expansion portion of the federal health care law. McDaniel said the decision to opt in or out was up to the Governor and legislature, but he agreed with Beebe’s initial comments on the subject.

“We’ve seen Gov. Beebe’s comments, which seem to make sense to me. If the federal government is going to spend the money to provide health insurance coverage for hundreds of thousands of citizens in Arkansas that do not currently have health insurance, and they’re going to fit that bill, it would be a pretty compelling argument to the General Assembly that they shouldn’t say ‘No’ to that. And say, ‘No, no, you should spend that money in other states on other citizens, but as for us we don’t want any help,” said McDaniel.

Having already filed paperwork declaring his intention to run for the Democratic nomination for Governor in 2014, McDaniel said he expected the race to cost $10-12 million.

He emphasized that his early declaration was to organize and be ready for the high-stakes challenge.

“It will be the most expensive race for Governor in the history of Arkansas,” McDaniel said. “I’m prepared to do what needs to be done to run an effective campaign.”

He said he won’t ask for the endorsement of Gov. Mike Beebe (D), who is term-limited, in the Democratic primary.

“I would not ask him to involve himself in a Democratic primary,” McDaniel said. “I’d ask him for his vote.”

He did say that he has had more than one conversation with a former rival, U.S. Mike Ross, D-Prescott, who said he would not run for the office in 2014. Ross and McDaniel were expected to have a bloody primary battle for the nomination.

“We’ve spoken on the phone and in person since his decision, but I’ll leave it up to him [Ross] as to what role, if any, he’d like to take in a campaign. I suspect he’s pretty excited about not being in a campaign,” McDaniel said.

With 4 citizens initiatives qualifying for the November ballot, McDaniel weighed in with his positions on all of them. He’s opposed to all 4 for different reasons.

Saying he has concerns about a potential monopoly by out-of-state interests, the AG expressed his opposition to separate casino proposals being led by Nancy Todd of Las Vegas and Michael Wasserman of Texas.

“I’m in favor of letting the people vote on a carefully crafted casino amendment,” McDaniel said. “These two, I’m not in favor of.”

He added that he thought there would be “strong” legal challenges to both proposals.

On the subject of medicinal marijuana, McDaniel said he was opposed to the measure, in large part due to his law enforcement background as a former police officer.

“I have a great concern about drug use and drug abuse in our state,” McDaniel said. “I recognize there are medical uses for marijuana. … I’m not satisfied that this amendment allows for adequate regulation. I’m afraid what we would wind up with is basically free-wheeling distribution of marijuana under the guise of a prescription.”

McDaniel also repeated his stance opposing a severance tax hike being led by Sheffield Nelson and the Arkansas Municipal League.

“I do not support an increase in the severance tax at this time,” McDaniel said, adding that he felt the legislative solution brokered in 2008 was satisfactory. He also said that from an economic and jobs standpoint, holding the severance tax to its current rate would help Arkansas “remain competitive.”

McDaniel made his toughest and most opinionated comments of the interview in response to a recent Arkansas Supreme Court decision that overturned part of the state’s execution law.

The ruling, which was not unanimous, determined that too much administrative power was given to the Department of Corrections to decide aspects of the chemicals used in state executions.

“As always, I respect the opinions of the Supreme Court, whether I agree with them or not. In this case, I certainly do not agree with them. I agreed with the dissent,” said McDaniel, who argued that the Department of Corrections should have some flexibility to deal with execution details.

“This is not performed with guards and a syringe. This is a very meticulously planned procedure,” McDaniel said.

“I think that frankly it’s ludicrous to suggest that the head of the Department of Corrections, who is about to carry out a lawful execution — which I promise you they all take very seriously and spend a great deal of time and prayer and study about — to suggest they would change the approved chemical to something like battery acid or Windex for the malicious fun of it, cost that person his career and freedom because it would be a felony, it makes no sense.

“We have not seen an execution since 2005 in Arkansas. And, if the Supreme Court thinks that we should, that executions should be declared unconstitutional, then they should do that. But instead, since the day I became Attorney General, they’ve simply erected one procedural hurdle after another to ensure that we can’t execute those who have committed the most heinous crimes in Arkansas.

“I think a death penalty debate is appropriate and I think its up to the General Assembly and the voters if they want to change the death penalty law, but I think the Supreme Court — if they can’t find it unconstitutional — should not continue to create one barrier after another to make it simply practically impossible,” said McDaniel.