For anyone expecting fireworks during the District 9 Senate candidate forum Thursday night (April 24), there were none. But there was plenty of policy discussion to keep the forum hosted by the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce going for more than 90 minutes.
The debate started with Sen. Bruce Holland, R-Greenwood, and Rep. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, jumping into the Private Option, which used federal dollars to purchase private health insurance for individuals who would have otherwise qualified for Medicaid coverage.
Rice called it the "biggest elephant in the room" before deriding the legislation that he voted against in the Arkansas House. He discussed how the program is funded by the federal government for the first three years of its existence, with funding falling on state government at that time.
"The payday's coming and I hate for people to be hurt. I asked for this to be put off and let's see what other states do around us. We were the only southern state — no other state that touched us expanded Medicaid. It's because the Supreme Court ruled we did not have to. We were told (by the federal government) we had to do something. We did not have to do something. We did need to reform Medicaid, but the cost is going to be exorbitant, I believe."
Holland, who voted in favor of the Private Option, had a decidedly different take on the oft-controversial legislation, explaining that there were three options available to the state.
The first option he said was to do nothing. The second option was to just go ahead with the federal government's move to expand Medicaid. The third option, he said, was for the state to take the reigns and create the first of its kind Private Option, using funds meant for Medicaid expansion to instead purchase health insurance for the poorest Arkansans, even though some have argued the state should not accept the federal funding since it is paid for with deficit spending.
"It's accepting federal money that the federal doesn't have. Well, I get that argument. I really get that. But there's money that's gone from this state to DC that I think we should take advantage of and allow these people and these hospitals the support through this Private Option. Now there's nothing perfect about it. It's the crappiest lemonade you could make out of these lemons. That's a fact. But doing nothing was not a good option. Expanding Medicaid was a terrible option because Medicaid is a horrible system. The state doesn't have any business in the insurance business, not the federal government."
He also said that working toward a solution, which Holland said he and his colleagues in the General Assembly did during the legislative session, was the right thing to do.
"And if you want to say I made the deciding vote on it, that's fine. I did."
With the forum being hosted by the Van Buren Chamber, government influence in business was a common theme. When asked to explain what he would do to help small businesses, Holland wasted no time pushing for additional tax cuts (Holland has previously endorsed Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson's tax cut plan).
"I believe the best thing we can do for small businesses is to reduce taxes for working people because I believe the more money you put back into working people's pockets, the more money they're going to have to spend at small businesses. And that's a real short answer, but I believe that's the right answer."
Rice leaned on his background in the furniture business when crafting his answer, explaining that he thinks the state has too much regulation that stifles small business growth.
"There's a lot of rules and regs that go through those committees that get passed without you getting to vote on them or the rest of the legislature getting to vote on them. We need to lessen up some regulations. This goes back where the federal government, we all know, has become overbearing and there's nobody going to push back unless the states push back. And that will help business."
He also favored "responsible tax decreases," as well, though he said legislators must look not only at current spending, but any liabilities and future costs, such as the Private Option when the federal government leaves the program to be fully funded by the state.
Education and workforce development was also an issue, with Holland pushing for more trade education versus a traditional college track for high school students. Rice piggybacked on Holland's statement and added the state should start producing skilled workers that the "industry wants."
"Not everybody is made to go to college. We need vocational training for kids who can get out and be happier and make more money than they would if they had a four-year degree in something that they really didn't like. We've got to work with the employment people to make sure we're getting everything we need for the young people and get them ready to go."
Following are quotes from the candidates on other topics:
• Holland on tourism and how it impacts business recruitment: "When we start thinking about recruiting some of those businesses, we need to think about what our towns look like and what they look like to someone else. We all get an impression when we go off to visit another city somewhere. …What we do with tourism, that's the face of that right now. That's what makes people want to come to live here. Those are the front lines of economic development."
• Rice on why voters should choose him on May 20: "Am I the best person? Am I smartest? No. I have a passion to do what I believe what I believe for people and the state, just as I believe Sen. Holland does."
• Rice on legalization of medical marijuana: "If it's on the ballot, I could not support it. I can tell you this, I went through pain management with a couple of spine surgeries. I have empathy for people with pain. I have empathy with people that need help. But I believe the concerns I see of people getting out on the road and that, I guess you're talking about a Colorado-type program, I would not support as a legislator."
• Holland on an increase of the state's minimum wage: "I am not in favor of raising the minimum wage. If we do raise it, let's make it $1,000 an hour. I think that's a bad argument, but I think it's going to hurt small businesses and I'm against it."