The May 20 primary is little more than seven weeks away and the area's first political debate of the 2014 political season took place Monday afternoon (March 10).
Republicans Bobby Altes and Mat Pitsch, the only two candidates for the District 76 House seat, debated nearly an hour on topics ranging from teacher pay to tax cuts to the Private Option in a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Fort Smith.
On the topic of the Private Option, which takes federal money intended for Medicaid expansion and instead uses that money to place low income Arkansans on private insurance, both candidates agreed it was a good alternative to just accepting the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare).
Pitsch — who unsuccessfully faced Altes' father, Denny, in the 2012 Republican primary for the District 76 House seat — said while the legislation passed during the 2013 legislative session and re-authorized last week was not perfect, he said he would have voted for the legislation because it met two criteria which he said all legislation should meet.
"Does it create jobs or prevent the loss of jobs? And does it overreach and grow government?" he asked rhetorically. "Well, this is a complex situation because those two aren't in tandem on this question. …It's a creative solution to keeping (businesses) open. …I go back to my scenario (where) we're preventing the loss of jobs. I would have voted for private option."
Altes said the Private Option was not prefect, but "it's the best option we have."
The son of the current representative said he hoped other options would present themselves as time went on, such as insurance reform, in order to eventually move away from the Private Option, "but the Private Option right now is going to take 250,000 people off of Medicaid and put them with private insurance and it will save the state in three years, it is supposed to save the state $670 million. That's quite a cost savings over the Affordable Care Act, but I hope there's another option and I hope to explore that with other legislators in Little Rock. Again, it's not a perfect solution, but it's the only solution we've got right now."
Beyond talk of the Private Option, Altes veered into a discussion on teacher pay and the new Common Core curriculum adopted in the state of Arkansas, which he said gives the federal government control over local school curriculum. Regarding teacher pay, Altes said he was in favor of not only increasing teacher pay in Arkansas but also adding incentive pay.
"I'm also for rewarding teachers' performance. I believe that should they meet their standards, those standards set by the state, that they should be rewarded accordingly."
While Altes said he was against the Common Core curriculum, he did not specify an alternative to the new national standard which he said is controlled by the federal government, a statement that is opposite of how the standards were developed. According to the Common Core website, "State education chiefs and governors in 48 states came together to develop the Common Core, a set of clear college- and career-ready standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts/literacy and mathematics."
"I'm against the Common Core curriculum because it takes control out of the state hands and puts it in the hands of the federal government," Altes said. "In addition to taking control away from the states and putting that into the hands of the federal government, it sets lower standards for our students."
Pitsch took a different approach in the discussion of education, referring to a policy initiative that is largely in line with that of Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson — increased emphasis placed on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education.
"We have to train in the trades and the skills, as well," he said. "So we as a legislating body need to truly understand what our economy is, what our citizenry need, and we need to understand what the performance is of schools. Are they getting the jobs done or are the students coming out with a degree, a high student loan debt? What are they going to do with that?"
On the issue of tax cuts, Altes was insisted that the state's income tax rate is too high for Arkansas to be competitive with surrounding states in attempts to recruit business and industry. He proposed a 2% income tax cut which would keep enough revenue for state government.
"I think our state needs to cut back and balance the budget, I think that we need to cut our taxes. I think that by cutting our taxes we can stimulate the economy. Spending money is not the way to stimulate the economy, but cutting taxes will stimulate the economy and produce more jobs and that's what we need here in Arkansas."
Noting that the state's budget is required by law to be balanced, Pitsch said the state must also have the money for education and infrastructure.
"We have got to compete with the states around us," Pitsch said. "My opponent brought up that our taxes are higher, but if I'm an outside CEO — and I've been a CEO, I've built a factory in another state before — when I look at another state, I want to know (if) I am going to find a quality workforce? Check. We've got that. Am I going to find transportation? Because when I make stuff a third of my business is bringing raw goods, I perform my magic to it and I ship it out. Do I have good highways, do I have good railroads, can I fly my parts in and out? Is my transportation there so I can compete on a global basis?"
Pitsch also touched on incentives, which he said the state should be performance-based instead of leaving the opportunity for companies to not deliver on their promises. He specifically pointed to the never opened Mitsubishi manufacturing facility at Chaffee Crossing, which was supposed to manufacture components for wind mills.
Following are quotes from both candidates on other topics discussed during the debate:
• Altes on a proposed inland port to be built along the Arkansas River and other area transportation issues: "Our ports that we have right now are underutilized. I think that that might be a future project. I think that right now, it's unnecessary and that it might be a waste of taxpayer money. As far as I-49 goes, they've got a Bella Vista Bypass, they've got a small section here in Fort Smith and they've got a small section down in Texarkana. They are…I heard an estimate of 20 years and then I was talking to that former highway commissioner and he said not in my lifetime. As I proposed, I think if we set aside $10 million a year, that we can get this done. And it will be good for our economy, but I don't think that just building rivers and building roads is going to cause jobs to come floating down the river. We're going to have to get serious, roll up our sleeves, cut up our budget a little bit, lower our taxes and that will cause our economy to come back. To be stimulated."
• Pitsch on diversifying the Fort Smith economy and casting a vision for the future: "Is anybody tired of saying we're the manufacturing base of Arkansas? How about we say we're the osteopathic medicine base? How about we say we have a unique university? How about we say we've become (an) arts and tourism (hub) with the Marshals Museum? We need people to cast a vision when they're in leadership. Now I'm a manufacturing guy. I get it. I'm also a former dean of a college. I get it. But we also have people in this community, Steve Clark downtown, building a corporate headquarters at the end of Garrison Avenue in a building that's old and antiquated. Let's have some vision in our visionary leaders. Let's have some young people led by elected officials to help them do something."