The two candidates in a competitive state House race in Jonesboro duked it out politically Wednesday as both candidates clarified their opinions before voters head to the polls.
State Rep. Harold Copenhaver, D-Jonesboro, and his opponent, Republican Dr. Brandt Smith of Jonesboro, spoke Wednesday to the Jonesboro Kiwanis Club at its weekly meeting.
The club is hosting a series of four debates involving state legislative races in Craighead County. Copenhaver and Smith are running in District 58, which includes a large swath of Jonesboro.
During the hour long debate, the two candidates spoke about a variety of issues including the private option, the minimum wage and their personal politics.
Both candidates were asked how they would vote next year when the reauthorization of the private option goes before the legislature.
Arkansas’ private option takes federal Medicaid expansion dollars and uses it in private health insurance exchanges to subsidize low income workers’ health care coverage. A bipartisan supermajority of the General Assembly passed the program in 2013 and renewed funding in 2014.
Smith said the vote would be a tough one, but that he would take a position of opposing it.
“I am not against helping people, but how do you pay for it?” Smith told the crowd. “There are some who say it is imperfect and needs tweaking. The two are mutually exclusive. … But it is unsustainable in its current form. We have to have a balanced budget. So I would ask Mr. Copenhaver, where are your tweaks?”
“What is your solution, Mr. Smith?” Copenhaver responded. “I hear none. If I were in Congress, I am not sure I would have voted for it. But Tom Cotton’s political director (state Rep. John Burris) was the main instigator of this.”
Copenhaver said the private option has helped rural hospitals and used a unique metaphor to describe issues with the plan.
“It is like a rice field. If you see red rice, you don’t get rid of the whole field. You pluck out the red rice,” Copenhaver said.
Smith responded that the state was “handed a fiasco” by the federal government with the federal health care law and that legislative leaders in Little Rock used “strong-arm tactics” to get the private option passed.
“It is not a pretty picture. Mr. Copenhaver, you helped create this mess,” Smith said.
“I don’t know President Obama, never met him,” Copenhaver said. “But I have met a lot of other folks who support this (private option).”
Both candidates discussed a ballot proposal to raise the state’s minimum wage that will go before voters Nov. 4.
Copenhaver said an increase would help raise income for residents, while Smith said an increase without first considering the business impact could hurt the state’s economy.
“It will raise income and I like the fact it helps business with the time (of implementing it),” Copenhaver said. “It will help provide economic development.”
Smith said he has worked minimum wage jobs in the past and that most of them are entry level jobs. He also said employers often reward people who are diligent, show up for work, are self-reliant and show personal responsibility.
“I support it, but at what cost?” Smith said.
Copenhaver noted that both Governor candidates, Democrat Mike Ross and Republican Asa Hutchinson, have expressed their support for the minimum wage increase.
During the debate, Copenhaver referred to Smith as a “Tea Party Extremist.”
“I have worked with the mayor and the leaders in our community. We have all worked together,” Copenhaver said, not with the “extreme ends” of both parties.
Later in the debate, Smith showed the club his Bronze Star. The medal was awarded to Smith for his bravery doing humanitarian work in Iraq.
“I would say that it is something I am proud of. I would also say that they do not give Bronze Stars to people who are extreme,” Smith said.