Two of the most hotly-contested state House races will be held in Jonesboro during this election cycle. District 58 incumbent Republican Brandt Smith is being challenged by local attorney, Democrat Jim Burton. The District 59 race will pit incumbent Republican Jack Ladyman against Democratic challenger and small-business owner, Reginald Prunty.
All four candidates participated in a series of debates prior to the election held by the NEA Political Animals, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that focuses on local and state political issues. The topics ranged from the response to the COVID-19 pandemic to support for Arkansas State University and the possibility of ASU and the University of Arkansas playing each other in football.
Answers for each candidate were compiled below. Answers appear in the order of incumbent to challenger in each race.
Smith said he expects the Arkansas Legislature to have a bold and aggressive agenda during the upcoming session. If re-elected, Smith said the topics he expects the body to tackle include a hate crimes bill, the removal of statutes on state property, and potential changes to the Arkansas flag.
He plans to pursue legislation that would allow medical workers to conscientiously object to being a part of some procedures without the threat of losing their job. The three-term state representative said he will also work toward a bill that would help those who have fallen behind on their personal property taxes get caught up on payments.
Burton said his primary concern if elected will be threats to the state’s Medicaid expansion program funded through the Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly referred to as Obamacare. The two largest medical institutions in the region — St. Bernards and NEA Baptist — could lose a combined $50 million per year if the program is overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in November, and the city cannot withstand a monetary hit like that without serious economic repercussions, he said.
About half the residents in the city want to wear a mask and the other half don’t, Smith said. Gov. Asa Hutchinson had been holding daily briefings and Smith said he wished he would only have them every few days due to “information overload.” He thinks the public has grown weary with the nonstop coverage and he said 98% of those who get it will get over it at some point.
The topic of ASU playing the University of Arkansas in football has been a hot button issue in recent years. Smith said he thinks the two programs should play, but he might vote present if a bill or resolution was presented to the legislature mandating a game.
Burton said one of the main problems facing the state is the rise in crime and political rancor. He noted that armed militias planned to kidnap the governors of Michigan and Virginia. He said he would support a hate crime bill.
The pandemic is this generation’s Great Depression, Burton said. He praised Hutchinson’s response to the crisis and said the steps everyone needs to take are simple and residents are not being asked to do a lot. Wear a mask, and socially distance when in public, he added.
When a football game between ASU and the UA was broached, Burton said he holds academic degrees from both schools and they should play. He said the board of trustees from both schools should come to an agreement.
The pandemic response will be the top legislative issue for Ladyman if he returns to the legislature next year, he said. Unemployment in the state, impacted by the virus, has improved in recent months but more support is needed, he said. Small businesses have suffered and support programs for those impacted need state government support. He said he was part of a pandemic response team when he worked in private business.
COVID-19’s impact runs deeper than the number of sick and dead and the economic damage it has brought, he said. Domestic abuse, suicide and child abuse have been on the rise. The best way to combat those problems is to find a way to get people back to work and back to school as quickly as possible, he added.
During his tenure at in the state House, Ladyman said he’s introduced legislation to require a football game between ASU and UA. The game would save $1 million because the UA often pays other Sun Belt schools that amount once a year to play. The game could be played in Little Rock, and would generate tax revenue for the state. Ladyman said he pulled the resolution when the schools appeared to be negotiating, but said if no agreement is reached he will reinstitute the resolution. He predicts the schools will play by 2024.
If Prunty is elected, learning his new colleagues and learning the systems in the legislature will be his first priority. His top legislative priority would be healthcare, he said. Many people in Northeast Arkansas cannot afford adequate healthcare, and many more could lose coverage if the ACA is overturned.
COVID-19 will remain a significant problem well into next year and possibly beyond, he said. Prunty said in addition to his experiences as a business owner and in the military, he was asked to sit on COVID-19 response task forces in Texas, Kentucky, and Missouri. He attends weekly calls for the task forces and is well aware of how the virus is unfolding in neighboring states.
Prunty said he supports a football game between the state’s two largest universities. He said Arkansas is one of, if not the only state, that doesn’t have a game between its two largest state schools. In a light moment, he told Ladyman that if he wins the race, he would be happy to sponsor Ladyman’s resolution mandating the schools play.