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Ross unveils Arkansas job creation plan during a stop in Fort Smith (Updated)

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

Editor's note: Story updated with response from GOP gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson.

Former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross announced his five-part job creation plan Thursday (June 12) during a visit to Chaffee Crossing, which Ross touted as having brought more than 1,000 jobs to the Fort Smith area since the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority was formed by the Arkansas legislature.

The 46-page plan focuses on improving education, implementing tax cuts, eliminating bureaucratic red tape, and implementing a five-part economic development plan.

“My comprehensive job creation and economic development plan is called Jobs First, because putting jobs first is exactly what I will do as governor,” said Ross. “By prioritizing education and workforce training, tax cuts, government efficiency and economic development, my job creation plan outlines my positive vision for the future of this great state and will guide my work as your next governor.  And, we will do all of this by putting an end to the partisan bickering and start working with one another to put jobs first.”

CUTTING RED TAPE
Ross's plan says the state needs to eliminate "burdensome government regulations" by focusing on the areas of accessibility, transparency and efficiency.

“While government can help, it doesn’t have all the answers, and it can’t solve all our problems.  Government should help where it can, and it should get out of the way where it can’t,” he said.  “As a former small business owner, I know that taxes are too high and that overly burdensome government regulations can stifle economic growth. That’s why my plan will cut taxes in a fiscally responsible way and will bring more efficiency, transparency and accountability to government.”

On the accessibility front, Ross proposed the creation of an online central business licensing system that would simplify the licensing process by having a one-stop shop for all businesses and entrepreneurs.

"The goal of the new central business licensing system will be to reduce the time it takes to start a small business in Arkansas, and to make the process easier, smoother and less confusing for our entrepreneurs," the plan states.

Regarding transparency, Ross is proposing the publication of all rules and regulations issued by state agencies, boards and commissions in a "centralized location and in a user-friendly format.”

To improve efficiencies in state government and small business creation, Ross proposed the creation of a task force that would examine all policies in place in the state for longer than three years and make recommendations on changes that should be made, either revising regulations or repealing regulations.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT PLAN
The first of the parts to Ross's economic development plan includes the creation of the Governor's Cabinet for Economic Development, which he announced in 2013 when he endorsed Democrat John Burkhalter, a former highway commission, in his bid for lieutenant governor.

"The Cabinet will serve as an advisory group for the entire state of Arkansas - to become an engine for new, innovative ideas that help businesses of all sizes start, grow or move to Arkansas," the plan reads, adding that the work of the proposed group could be done at zero cost to the state.

The second part of Ross's economic development plan involves the full $50 million funding of the Governor's Quick Action Closing Fund, created under current Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe as a way for the state to quickly close deals with job prospects. Ross said the fund was not replenished for the 2015 budget, leaving it with a balance of only $7 million.

The third part of the economic development plan includes the creation of grants to "encourage non-profit organizations, economic development partnerships and local communities all over Arkansas to replicate some of the same components that make up the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub. …" The ARIH is under construction in North Little Rock and will serve as a business incubator in Central Arkansas.

Ross proposed using $3 million in surplus funds to make grants available for groups and communities for up to two years that would "implement programming, resources or initiatives that encourage innovation, foster technical and skills training or provide support and resources for entrepreneurial activity. Grants may also be used to build, update or refurbish facilities or purchase high-tech equipment relevant to those communities' business and entrepreneurial needs.”

Fourth in Ross's economic development plan is creating a "crowdsourcing" campaign to encourage agencies in state government to get creative "about how to harness the ideas and entrepreneurial talents of Arkansas and give Arkansas' budding entrepreneurs opportunities to be recognized and rewarded for their skills and talents.” The plan also calls for the launch of a website entitled "Engage Arkansas to partner the private sector and state government to find solutions for state challenges.”

The final proposal as part of Ross's economic development plan includes creating the "Arkansas Work Ready Community Initiative," which the campaign said would be defined as a "community, county or regional partnership certified as having a skilled and trained workforce ready to meet the needs of job creators." The program would be based on the national ACT Work Ready Community certification program, which would incentivize participation in the program.

EDUCATION
Ross's education plan was announced earlier this year and focuses heavily on universal pre-K and technical education as an alternative to college.

The plan for universal pre-K specifically will run $37.48 million per year once full implemented, Ross's 46-page jobs plan says, though the campaign touts the reported return on investment as a positive.

"In fact, the average return on investment for pre-kindergarten programs is $10.83 for every dollar invested, according to research reported in the 2013 Policy Report by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER)," the plan reads.

Ross's plan also calls for expanding programs already in place, including the Arkansas School Recognition and Rewards Program, which rewards schools based on student performance and improvement ratings.

The former 4th District Congressman is also proposing the creation of a Innovation Laboratory (InLab) Fund, using $5 million from the state's surplus funds each year to fund the program. InLab will be available for educators to implement what the campaign said were innovative, yet proven, learning strategies.

Fully funding the Governor's Distinguished Scholarship, which is designed to pay $10,000 in scholarships for 300 students who meet eligibility to stay in-state for their college education. The annual cost is $3 million, though Ross said the program always has a higher number of students apply for the grant each year, which could mean an additional $1.6 million in needed funding for the program.

According to Ross, education is key component of developing the state's workforce, which is why it is featured so prominently in his jobs plan.

“I know that education and job creation go hand in hand, which is why I want to be the education governor and why my plan is so focused on improving education and workforce training in Arkansas,” Ross said.

TAX CUTS
Ross's previously announced tax cut plan is also featured prominently, with the Democratic gubernatorial candidate again pushing for lowering the overall tax rate for most Arkansas families to a peak rate of 4.4%, though individuals earning over $75,100 would be taxed at a 6.9% rate, just under the state's current 7% max.

Overall, the plan will reduce state revenues by more than $574 million once it is fully phased in, while saving the average Arkansas family about $665 per year, he said. Simply put, Ross's plan states that Arkansas' current income tax structure is stifling job growth, which is why a change is needed.

"This tax cut plan will create more good-paying jobs and help save the ones we already have; it will help our small businesses grow; it will encourage more investments in manufacturing jobs; it will help keep the next generation right here in Arkansas working at good jobs and raising their families here; and it will put more of people's hard-earned money back into their pockets," the plan reads.

COSTS AND POLITICAL REALITIES
Standing with Ross has he announced the jobs plan, Burkhalter called Ross's proposal "visionary" and said it would move Arkansas' economy forward by helping businesses create jobs and bringing a national spotlight to the Natural State.

"This plan for job creation in Arkansas is bold, it's comprehensive, it's visionary and will move Arkansas into the national spotlight as a serious player in the economic development community."

Speaking to The City Wire about his jobs plan, Ross said he did not feel like the multi-part plan was too ambitious to be achieved and said he feels like even if the General Assembly stays under Republican control should he be elected governor in the fall, it would be approved by a majority of legislators.

"When it comes to improving education, cutting taxes, creating more and better paying jobs, those should not be partisan issues," he said. "I've made it clear that I'm proud to be the nominee for governor of the Democratic Party, but I'm running to be the governor of all the people of this state. I've spend my life working in a non-partisan manner. I've got the temperament, experience and leadership skills to work with both parties to put Arkansas first.”

He said funding for new programming such as the InLab and fully funding of scholarships would not add much cost to programs and initiatives included in the plan that he had previously announced. Ross added that costs would amount to about $3.6 million annually out of the general fund, with another $8 million in "one-time surplus funds.”

“The bottom line is this: my job creation plan will strengthen public education and workforce training, cut taxes, reduce government regulations, and position Arkansas to become a national leader in the economic development community – all of which will create more and better-paying jobs, grow the Arkansas economy for everyone and tell the nation that Arkansas is open for business.”

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Link here to the PDF (large file) of the 46-page Ross plan.

HUTCHINSON STATEMENTS
• Following is the statement from the Asa Hutchinson campaign.

Longtime Democratic Congressman Mike Ross has zero credibility in terms of job creation.

He has zero credibility in job creation in the congressional district he represented for more than a decade in congress. While Arkansas’s 4th Congressional District struggled with job loss overall, Mike Ross’s own home county saw unemployment increase by nearly 50% during the time Ross was in Washington, D.C. Furthermore, when Mike Ross took office, national unemployment was 4.2%. After twelve years in Washington, D.C., Ross left office with unemployment at 7.9%.

Mike Ross has zero credibility on job creation when he helped lay the groundwork for Obamacare.

He has zero credibility in reducing the burden of government regulations when almost 40,000 new federal rules were published during Ross’s years in Washington, D.C.,  
He has zero credibility on reducing wasteful government spending when he voted for the “cash for clunkers” program and the stimulus package. All of this spending helped to add than more than $10 trillion dollars to the federal debt while Ross was in Washington D.C.

• Asa Hutchinson issued the following statement:
“When it comes to job creation, there are fundamental differences between myself and my Democratic opponent, Mike Ross. I released the The Asa Plan - Making Arkansas Competitive: A New Jobs Plan for 2015 & Beyond in April of this year.  Job creation is so vitally important that, as governor, I will lead our economic development and not delegate it to another office.  Mike Ross wants his running mate, John Burkhalter, to lead his effort.  I have said from the beginning that my top priority is job creation and economic growth.  I will be the jobs governor; Mike Ross is not sure what his priority will be.  Last month he claimed that he would be the education governor and that was his top priority. This month he says “jobs first”. What will his top priority be next month?”

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