Arkansas’ gubernatorial candidates debate taxes, transgender law, education

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,424 views 

(from left) Republican gubernatorial candidate Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Democrat candidate Dr. Chris Jones, and Libertarian Ricky Dale Harrington Jr.

Taxes, transgender laws, media access, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were part of Friday’s (Oct. 21) three-person gubernatorial debate in which frontrunner and Republican Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Democrat challenger Dr. Chris Jones focused on education and jobs.

The debate, which also included Libertarian candidate Ricky Dale Harrington Jr., was conducted by Arkansas PBS and televised live Friday morning.

A recent Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College Poll showed Sanders with a 10-point lead over Jones (51% to 41%) heading into the last weeks of the election cycle. Harrington had support from 3% of poll respondents. The poll was conducted Oct. 17-18 with 974 likely Arkansas voters.

With the first question focused on if national politics played too much of a part of state elections, Harrington said the hyper-partisanship of D.C. politics is “becoming very, very volatile,” and Arkansans must find a way to move beyond violence and hatred in politics. Jones said his race has “always been about Arkansas” because Arkansas leaders need to “get back to the bread and butter issues” like job growth, especially in rural areas “that have been left out.”

Jones would also say he wants to spread PB&J (preschool, broadband and jobs) so that every part of the state gets a good bite of the sandwich, not just “dry bread.”

“Arkansans across this state, from Mena to Cove, to Stamps to Wabbaseka, are taking bites and getting dry bread. We need preschool, broadband and jobs across the entire state, and as governor, that’s certainly what I’d focus on,” Jones said.

Sanders said Arkansans can’t ignore the many “failures of the Biden Administration,” but said she is running for governor because she wants to focus on improving the state’s education system, including workforce readiness which she said has “been ignored in the state of Arkansas.”

“I think one of the most important things we can do, and certainly one of the biggest priorities that I’ll have when I take office in January, is to focus on education in Arkansas. I think it is the single biggest and best place where a governor can impact change and really transform our state,” she said.

Jones said he has traveled to all 75 Arkansas counties and believes voters want a governor focused on practical solutions and not engaging in “extremism” politics.

“Arkansans have a history of electing pragmatic governors. Governors who are willing to show up, listen, engage, and develop real plans that actually make a difference in people’s lives. And as governor, I will certainly wake up every day and do that,” Jones said. “We need a governor who is really focused on problem-solving and not the extremism that I’m hearing.”

On the credibility issue, Harrington shot at Sanders’ former boss.

“You don’t want to throw anybody under the bus, but sometimes when it comes to the truth, when it comes to the things that matter the most, there comes a point in each and every one of our lives where we have to stand up, and we have to do the right thing. And you all know what I’m talking about right now, especially dealing with the former president and his credibility, we have to find a way to get back to the basics in our government of trusting one another,” he said.

Sanders, the daughter of former Arkansas Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee, responded by noting that integrity and trust are key, and as a parent of three young children, she approaches every decision based on what’s best for their future.

“As a parent, as a mom of three young kids … I know that every single decision that I will make as governor will have a direct impact on the life of my own kids as well as every child growing up in the state of Arkansas. It’s not something I take lightly, but it is something I’m willing to take on,” she said.

Jones also noted his hopes as a parent in Arkansas.

“Look, I have three girls. I want them to grow up in an Arkansas where they can choose whatever path they want, whether it’s higher ed, or the trades, or entrepreneurship,” Jones said.

Sanders noted that 54% of the state budget goes to education, but the “results are simply unacceptable.” She said other state programs are not measuring up, adding that Arkansas could find $40 million to $50 million a year in savings through efficiencies. She also promoted her plan to phase out the state’s income tax and “cut out the waste and the fraud and the abuse that exists in our government spending as it exists now.”

Jones pointed the finger back at Sanders.

“I hear talk about results not matching up. I hear talk about waste, fraud and abuse. Well, it’s been Mrs. Sanders’ party that has been in power for the last eight years, so I think we have to look there to see. And Einstein said you can’t do the same thing over and over again and expect different results,” Jones said.

Jones also said you can’t cut 55% of state revenue by eliminating the income tax without significant cuts or with increases in other taxes and fees. Sanders responded by saying her plan will “responsibly” phase out the tax, using economic growth to help make up for lost revenue.

Jones and Harrington disagreed with Sanders on the state’s controversial transgender law.

Act 626, passed in the 2021 legislative session, prohibits physicians and health care professionals from providing gender transition procedures to individuals under age 18, or to refer minors to other health care professionals. It also prohibits the use of public funds or insurance coverage for gender transition procedures. It does not prohibit services for persons born with a “medically verifiable disorder of sex development,” such as external biological sex characteristics. The law was the first in the nation to block medical procedures for gender transition. Gov. Asa Hutchinson vetoed the bill, but the Legislature overrode the veto.

The 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on Aug. 25 upheld a preliminary injunction against an Arkansas law that bans gender transition procedures for those under the age of 18.

“There is a child at the end of that conversation. There is a family at the end of that conversation. I don’t question either one of my opponent’s love for their family. I don’t question their desire to make the decisions for their children. … As a scientist, and as a minister, and as an engineer, I would listen to what the science says and make sure that we are allowing parents and families to make the key decisions that they need,” Jones said.

Harrington said the legislation “shouldn’t have even made it out of committee,” adding that too many professionals in the field have said transgender care should be up to the families to decide.

Sanders said this is a matter of the government protecting children.

“I would have supported this legislation and signed it because we have to do a better job of protecting the kids in the state, and frankly across the country. Kids are not capable of making life-altering decisions like that. There is a reason we have laws in place that protect kids from driving before the age of 16, voting before the age of 18, before we allow them to make decisions about smoking and drinking and wearing a seat belt because they are not capable of making adult decisions at that age,” she said.

Press access has been an issue in the gubernatorial campaign, resulting in a question at Friday’s debate. Sanders has received broad criticism for avoiding debates and media interviews. She has refused, for example, 28 interview requests over 22 months from Talk Business & Politics. Sanders also did not participate in a press conference held after Friday’s debate.

Jones and Harrington said they have been and will always be open to the media, with Harrington saying a “free and safe society” depends on being open with all people. Jones said he has heard from voters who are “frustrated” that Sanders avoids public questioning.

“The media plays a critical and important role in our society. They allow us to get into tough questions. They allow us to see behind the veil and to know what is going on. Because I can say things on this stage, but the real question is, ‘What is in the details? What is behind what I am saying, and who is it going to be beneficial for? And that’s the role of the media,” Jones said.

He also said it’s important for leaders to “show up in front of crowds and the media who don’t agree with them.”

Sanders pushed back.

“Freedom of the press is incredibly important. But with freedom of the press also comes a great deal of responsibility. And when they don’t live up to their end of the bargain, it forces some of us to go outside of the box, which I have done every single day for the last two years,” she said.

Sanders also said she’s probably met with more Arkansans face-to-face than the other two gubernatorial candidates combined.

“Because I know more than anybody that sometimes you have to go directly to the people and cut out the middle man and the bias in which they are going to present your message,” she said.

The general election is set for Nov. 8, with early voting beginning Oct. 24 and continuing to Nov. 7.