Issues ranging from abortion to wastewater systems were part of a 3rd Congressional District debate Monday (Oct. 17) in which U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, said he would support a nationwide abortion ban if it included “certain exemptions.”
Womack, the incumbent in the race who is seeking his seventh term in the U.S. House of Representatives, faced Libertarian Michael Kalagias and Democrat Lauren Mallett-Hays in Monday’s debate televised by Arkansas PBS and moderated by Steve Barnes.
The first question to the candidates was about infrastructure spending in the 3rd District. Womack, noting that about 30 people a day are moving into Northwest Arkansas, said regions in the district have passed taxes and taken other actions to address such needs, but “a federal partner is going to be necessary” for big projects like a bridge across the Arkansas River in the Fort Smith metro to help complete Interstate 49 in the state.
Mallett-Hays proposed a big idea for transportation infrastructure.
“One key piece that we’re missing is public transportation in the form of commuter rail. I think connecting the Northwest Arkansas corridor to Fort Smith and then on down to Little Rock will be a significant improvement for our area as far as the rapid growth we are going to see,” she said.
Kalagias said taxes are already in place to meet infrastructure demand, and the housing supply is largely a problem of too much government regulation on developers and builders. He also said there is no demand for mass transit, and any money spent on it is a waste.
According to Womack, a “hidden” issue that could be a “real growth inhibitor” is managing wastewater and how it is regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“We have to spend a little time talking about that as well because that could cause us to have to stop growth completely,” he said.
On the economy, Mallett-Hays said if elected, she would push for an “OT40” bill to eliminate taxes on overtime pay and some commission pay. She also said legislation is needed to reduce taxes on businesses. Kalagias said the best way to improve the economy is with tax breaks. He said 50% of his household revenue is spent on paying taxes and fees.
“It’s overwhelming how much money you have to give up from what you earn,” Kalagais said. “We have to lower that tax burden, not just in income taxes, but across the board, in all taxes.”
He said lower taxes must come with reduced government spending.
Womack keyed on inflation, noting that Congressional spending is what has driven inflation to record levels. He said another inflation driver is energy costs and volatile global politics, and the U.S. must do more to promote energy independence. Kalagias responded by saying Republicans and Democrats have overseen the rise in spending, and Congress needs representatives who will recognize the problem and do something about it. Mallet-Hays said the global pandemic, supply chain disruptions, and higher corporate profits are also inflation drivers.
As to government spending and supporting entitlement programs like Social Security, Kalagais and Mallett-Hays agreed that sending Womack and other incumbents back to Washington isn’t working. Mallett-Hays said voters shouldn’t keep sending the same people to Congress to fix the system who have not done anything to fix it. Kalagias called the existing Social Security system a “Ponzi scheme,” and it should be changed to a defined contribution plan to protect money paid in by each individual.
On the divisive issue of abortion, Mallet-Hays was the only candidate with a pro-choice position.
The U.S. Supreme Court on June 24 upheld a Mississippi law banning abortion and, in doing so, overturned the right to abortion in Roe v. Wade, and also overturned Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which also provides national abortion access. The ruling (Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization) is the first time it has reversed a ruling granting a constitutional right in the Court’s history. At least 13 U.S. states, including Arkansas, had trigger laws that make abortion illegal if the court were to reverse Roe. The ruling does not outlaw abortion but effectively pushed legislation on the issue to the states.
Mallett-Hays said it’s wrong for state and federal governments to tell half of the American population they are not capable of making informed decisions for themselves. She said abortion is a medical procedure that is warranted at times, and it should be a decision between a woman and her medical providers.
Kalagias said he believes in life at the moment of conception and abortion neglects the right of a “unique” person. Womack said the Dobbs decision did push the decision back to the states, but he could support a national ban.
“I believe that on issues like this that are so close and so emotional, and so emotionally charged, that the best place for those issues to be decided is closest to the people. That’s the way our Constitution was formed. But that said, I support a federal ban on abortions with certain exceptions. I’ve been very clear about that,” Womack said.
Following are notes on other issues discussed.
• Climate change
Womack stressed he is not a “climate change denier” but said the U.S. should produce more fossil fuels because it can do it cleaner and in a more environmentally responsible manner than other countries. He also advocated nuclear energy. “I think we need more of that kind of energy to reduce the carbon footprint and bring about a sustainable grid.” Mallett-Hays pushed for a broad policy that includes fossil fuels but creates a transition away from fossil fuels. Kalagais said more Americans should “act locally” to reduce carbon emissions and suggested using trash instead of coal to produce electricity.
• Russian invasion of Ukraine
Kalagias said the U.S. is $31 trillion in debt and doesn’t have the money to help Ukraine, adding that “at a certain point, Europe is going to have to solve its own problems.” Womack and Mallett-Hays agreed that supporting Ukraine is necessary. “We cannot afford for Eastern Europe to be overrun by an unchecked Vladimir Putin,” Womack said.
• Online voter registration
All three candidates supported the idea of online voter registration, with Womack saying it would need to be a “fail-safe” system before he could support it. Mallett-Hays noted, “We are in the 21st century, and we should absolutely be able to register online.” Kalagias said, “There is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t have online voter registration.”