Editor’s note: This article was written by TB&P contributor Bob Qualls.
State Rep. James McLean (D) of Batesville and former State Rep. Linda Collins-Smith (R) of Pocahontas did not agree on much at a joint appearance in Batesville last May.
The two are vying for the State Senate District 19 seat left vacant by Sen. David Wyatt (D), who did not seek re-election.
McLean has served as a state representative for six years in House District 63. Before that, he served on the Independence County Quorum Court.
Collins-Smith is a former state representative in District 80. She was elected in 2010 as a Democrat, but switched parties in 2011. Redistricting put her in the same district as an incumbent Republican, so she chose to run for the State Senate in 2012 against Wyatt, who defeated her by two percentage points to win re-election.
The biggest area of disagreement between Collins-Smith and McLean centers on the private option, Arkansas bipartisan experiment with Medicaid expansion. The private option uses federal Medicaid dollars to help low-income people buy private insurance.
McLean said he “absolutely” would continue to support the private option. He said he has voted for it six times, and would vote for it again.
Collins-Smith said, “Heck no! I will not support Obamacare in any form.”
Collins-Smith said the people of Arkansas don’t like it, but McLean disagreed. He said the private option was developed by the Republican-led Legislature to replace Obamacare. He said it has policies that protect small business, and that the Arkansas Hospital Association had thanked him for supporting it because it will cut hospitals’ cost of uncompensated care in half. He said the private option saved rural health care.
Collins-Smith said it was Gov. Mike Beebe’s plan, not Republican legislators, a notion McLean called “ridiculous, bordering on laughable.” He named the Republican legislators who designed the plan – including Senate leaders Jonathan Dismang (R-Beebe) and David Sanders (R-Little Rock) – and said other states are looking at it as a model.
The winner of this Senate race is crucial to the private option’s future as Sen. Wyatt was a vote for the program. With 27 votes needed in the upper chamber to pass reauthorization of funding, supporters need McLean in the Senate while opponents prefer Collins-Smith.
Senate District 19 includes all of Independence, Sharp, and Izard counties and parts of Randolph and Fulton counties.
McLean serves as chairman of the House Education Committee and is a member of the House Committee for City, County, and Local Affairs. In his second term, he served as Assistant Speaker Pro-Tempore of the House of Representatives and was chairman of the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee.
McLean won re-election to the House in 2012 by defeating controversial Republican Charlie Fuqua with 70% of the vote. Fuqua became a lightning rod for his 2012 comments and a book he wrote that advocated for a law to allow the death penalty for rebellious children, called for the expulsion of Muslims from the U.S. and the execution of repeat criminal offenders.
Prior to serving in the legislature, McLean served two terms on the Independence County Quorum Court. He is a funeral director in Batesville. He is married to Katie West McLean who is the Family and Children Ministries Director at First United Methodist Church of Batesville. They have two children, Evan (age 9) and Molly (age 4).
While there are areas of disagreement, McLean and Collins-Smith are not that far apart in their political leanings. McLean is considered one of the most conservative members of the Democratic Party in Arkansas. He is pro-life and has received an A rating and the endorsement of the NRA. He favors reducing the size of government and lowering the tax burden on Arkansans.
Collins-Smith has bona fide conservative credentials. She touts limited government, lower taxes, and ending burdensome regulations on her web site. She has taken a strong stand in support of the right to life movement, religious freedom, and the Second Amendment. She is a lifetime member of the NRA and founding member of the Friends of the NRA in Hardy.
When she switched parties in 2011, she said, “I have not left the Democratic Party, but the party left me.” She said the party had moved too far left for her to remain in it.
She served in the Arkansas House from 2010 to 2012, representing Randolph and Sharp counties. While in the legislature, she served on the Revenue and Taxation; City, County, and Local; and Energy committees. She also has served on the Arkansas Ethics Commission.
She and her family own and operate lodging businesses in Pocahontas. She has been a regional sales manager, a real estate agent, president of the Arkansas Lodging Association, and winner of statewide tourism awards. She and her husband, a circuit court judge, have two children. They attend the Sutton Free Will Baptist Church in Pocahontas.
The two candidates were e-mailed questions about some of the key issues. Here are their responses, edited only for brevity:
Q: What do you consider the top three issues in the District 19 Senate race?
Linda Collins-Smith: (1) Obamacare: Obamacare in Arkansas is the largest expansion of government bureaucracy in state history. It simply cannot be sustained without large tax increases. It already is over budget and costs have increased every month since it began. It requires all Arkansas taxpayers to pay for abortion inducing drugs, directly in violation of the state Constitution, which specifically prohibits providing abortions with public money. In short, it is bad public policy that is unaffordable, and our citizens should not be on the hook to pay for it.
(2) Jobs/Economy: Arkansas people have a great work ethic and we have tremendous natural resources. It is inexcusable that we are not among the country’s most prosperous states. The same party has been in control of our economy for 140 years, and the result is that we have remained among the poorest of states. It will take vision and leadership to change the business climate in Arkansas. When it is more profitable for businesses to come here and stay rather than move out of Arkansas, then those businesses will provide the good-paying jobs our hard-working families need. We must get rid of the job killers of unreasonably high taxes and oppressive government regulation.
(3) Education/Common Core: This federal takeover of our state education system will cause great damage to our children and their chances for future success. It is bad on so many levels. At best, it is an unnecessary social experiment using our kids as guinea pigs. At worst, it undermines the social and moral fabric of our state and country. It cuts
parents out of the education process, and it robs dedicated teachers of the freedom to use creative and effective teaching methods. Several other states have seen the danger of Common Core and already have pulled out of the program. Arkansas should do the same.
James McLean: (1) Keeping our K-12 schools strong. Good schools are the backbone of communities. Making sure our rural and small schools have the resources they need to be successful is critical. This includes better teacher pay, expanded and powerful broadband access and strong partnerships with the Department of Education so our local school boards have the resources they need to keep our students and teachers performing at a high level.
(2) As our local economies grow and job growth improves we must support tax relief for working families. Prosperity comes from families doing well and local economies growing and creating job opportunities. It’s time to give working families and middle-income folks an income tax break. Any discussion about tax cuts must be focused on middle class-working families.
(3) North-central Arkansas is open for business. The examples of growth are everywhere. We must have great relationships with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission to maintain our momentum. In addition, it’s vitally important to continue to fight for our fair share of highway projects. Highway dollars cannot be concentrated to just Central and Northwest Arkansas. Our part of the state is growing and the need for better highways is a reflection of that.
Q: You have said you oppose the private option. What is the basis for your opposition and what would you replace it with?
Collins-Smith: I oppose it because it simply is Obamacare disguised under another name. It takes the Obamacare tax money; it expands the Medicaid rolls in Arkansas by 250,000 people; and it implements all the requirements of the Obamacare takeover of our health care system. It requires a huge increase in the size and power of the state government, hundreds more taxpayer-funded bureaucrats, and locks thousands more of our people into government dependency. Our health care system can be overhauled without handing it over to the federal government.
Opening state borders to competition among insurance companies, making insurance plans portable from job to job, and limiting exemptions for pre-existing conditions, are examples of measures that would make health care more accessible to all our people. There are many other approaches that can be implemented without causing an unsustainable drain on taxpayers’ resources.
Q: You have said you support the private option. Why?
McLean: The Republican Private Option plan has saved rural hospitals and rural health care in Arkansas. Without it, our rural and small town hospitals would close. I support the Republican Private Option because folks in small towns and rural counties should have the same access to hospital care as folks in Little Rock, Jonesboro and Northwest Arkansas. If you’re against the Republican Private Option, you’re against rural and small town healthcare … period.
Q: You are a strong supporter of the Second Amendment. What is your opinion on “open carry” of firearms?
Collins-Smith: I believe in the Constitution. The government oversteps its bounds when it whittles away the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. Open carrying by law-abiding citizens poses no threat to anyone. However, criminals who carry guns, whether openly or concealed, should be held strictly accountable for their crimes. Using a firearm in committing a crime should result in prison sentences and the loss of all gun rights.
McLean: I strongly believe in the Second Amendment and I voted for and support Act 746. It’s every Arkansan’s right to keep and bear arms and protect themselves and their families regardless of where they are.
Q: What specifically would you do to improve our schools and the quality of education in Arkansas?
Collins-Smith: It is important for parents to have choices about where their children go to school. Making the decision which type of structure a child needs allows parents to better control their children’s education. Charter, faith-based, private, public and home schools all have their places. Charter schools have produced very good records in Arkansas and many new charters are being applied for.
I believe we should impose a moratorium on rural school closings until a thorough study is completed to assess the impact on the students and communities. My opponent and I differ here. He refused to stand up for rural schools when he failed to vote for a moratorium on closing schools pending review of the effect of closing rural Arkansas schools on the children. I believe requiring children to ride buses as much as two hours to and from school is likely to adversely impact a child’s productivity. School closings should never be based on student population alone. The quality of education provided to a school’s students should be considered as well.
We should move aggressively to increase technical schools’ job/skill training opportunities. This is an area of education that has been neglected by our state for too long. Businesses need skilled workers. We can produce such workers through partnerships among high schools, technical and community colleges, and employers. Doing so will help Arkansas become a more desirable place for businesses and their resulting jobs to locate.
McLean: I’m excited about our K-12 schools in Arkansas. As chairman of the House Education Committee, I’ve had the opportunity to get an up-close view of the great job our teachers and administrators are doing to prepare our kids for life after school. But, we always need to focus on what we can do better. Dynamic broadband access for our rural and small schools is vital. Getting strong, powerful bandwidth will be crucial in maintaining the strength of rural education in Arkansas, which is the backbone of our educational system.
Q: Many Arkansas counties, including those in District 19, are struggling with jails that are over capacity because of a backlog of state prisoners being held by county jails. It’s also a financial burden for counties because the state reimbursement for holding state inmates is much lower than the actual cost of incarceration. What would you do to fix this problem?
Collins-Smith: The state has a duty to incarcerate those convicted of crimes. It is wrong to abdicate that duty by requiring county and city jails to carry the state’s burden without proper compensation. A short-term solution we must consider is increasing the state’s reimbursement rate to reflect the actual cost of housing each inmate. Long-term solutions are obvious, but more difficult. Either build more prison space, or decriminalize or legalize some acts that now are considered crimes. Decriminalization is not an acceptable solution because of the increased danger and aggravation to the public that would result. Act 570, passed in 2011, tried that approach, the result being mainly to just shift the problem from the state to the local governments. Building prison space is expensive, but necessary to maintain a safe society. One possible solution might be to consider converting some of the closed school campuses around the state to minimum-security facilities for non-violent offenders.
McLean: When it comes to prison overcrowding we must properly reimburse our county jails at an appropriate level. Our county jails have carried the load for too long and it’s a huge burden on county budgets. It’s time to look at building additional prison space at the state level.
Q: If elected, what would be your first legislative priority when the General Assembly convenes?
Collins-Smith: I believe there must be two top priorities. One, we must repeal or defund the Arkansas Obamacare plan, which would help secure our long-term financial well-being and allow us to begin implementing responsible health care reform. Two, we should opt out of the Common Core curriculum, which will allow us to join with other states in restoring time-tested curricula and effective teaching methods to provide our children with the best possible educational opportunities.
McLean: As a State Senator, I’ll fight for strong partnerships between state and local agencies to promote District 19 and support the growth of our existing businesses. I will also advocate and support policies that create a business-friendly environment for rural and small town Arkansas. Favorable tax policy, growth incentives for new and existing businesses, and a focus of economic development dollars for District 19 are all things I will fight for. If I have the honor of being elected, the first things I will fight for are tax cuts for working and middle class families and increased broadband access for our rural schools.