The race for Arkansas governor made a stop in Fort Smith Friday (Aug. 1) with Republican Asa Hutchinson and Democrat Mike Ross each addressing a crowd of 325 at the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce's First Friday event.
Each candidate was given 15 minutes to make their case to Fort Smith business leaders, government officials and the public, followed by a five minute question and answer session. With the toss of a coin, it was determined that Hutchinson would address the crowd first.
The former congressman and Fort Smith native laid out a series of six issues he said were important to not only Fort Smith, but to the state and would be priorities should he be elected the state's next governor in November.
First on the list was working to ensure the the 188th Wing's new unmanned flying mission was a success and he said getting on a new national governor's council created in 2008 could help keep the unit's mission active and stable for many years to come.
"We've got to make it work, we've got to make it expand and I think there's a great opportunity there and I want to be supportive," he said. "In fact, as governor, I will seek a seat on the council of governors that helps guide Department of Defense policy when it comes to the National Guard. There's 10 governors that are appointed to that slot."
Hutchinson said technology education at the secondary level was a priority of his, saying that by introducing coding courses at the high school level students would have marketable skills as they enter high education or the workforce following graduation. He said the total cost of implementing such educational standards would be about $500,000 to train educators to teach the courses and to develop curriculum. He said a change in the state law would be necessary to offer the courses for either math or science credit.
Manufacturing was also a focus of Hutchinson's remarks, with proposals made to remove what he has said repeatedly throughout the campaign are burdensome regulatory processes in Arkansas. Doing so would not only keep manufacturers in Arkansas, but would allow the state to recruit additional industry to the state.
One such industry is the firearms industry, with Hutchinson touting his past work with the National Rifle Association and saying that he was already pitching Arkansas as a possible home for manufacturers who may be looking to relocate as a result of anti-gun legislation in their respective home states.
He said all of the effort in bringing jobs to the state — and being what he called "the jobs governor" — would be remiss without a reduction in taxes, making Arkansas competitive with surrounding states that have lower or no income taxes such as Oklahoma and Texas.
"I presented a tax plan that would lower the individual state income tax rate in this state and it is a job creation issue," he said. "It is a competitive issue."
Hutchinson said as governor, he would push the state to convert more vehicles to compressed natural gas because it would create a "cleaner environment" and "lower cost fuel."
"I don't believe that mandates from the government, but I do believe in leadership and so I pledge that as governor that I will accelerate conversion of state vehicles to CNG options to that we can provide leadership and a better example for people in this state. I think that is a good opportunity for the River Valley, as well, and we will capitalize on that."
When Ross took the stage, the former congressman and state senator talked about his small business background and time in government, noting that when he left Congress in 2012 it was because he was "fed up with Washington," but not necessarily public service.
"The last thing we need in state government is the kind of partisan bickering and disfunction that we see in Washington today. In this state, we're too small for that and there's a lot more that unites us than divides us. So let me be clear — I am a conservative, pro-business, pro-gun Arkansas Democrat but I am not running to be governor of the Democratic Party. And I am not running to be governor of the Republican Party. I am fed up with the extremes of both parties. I am running to be governor of all the people of this great state and I pledge to work with everyone who will work with me to make this state an even better place to live, to work and to raise a family."
Ross took a shot at Hutchinson's plan to be the jobs governor, saying that it requires investment in education.
"Asa said he wants to be the jobs governor, but I want to be the education governor because I think that's how you become the jobs governor. I think that is how you create economic opportunities in this state."
He said often various communities in the state lose out on jobs and business expansions because the towns and cities simply do not have an educated workforce to service businesses.
Ross said Arkansas has been "49th (in education rankings) all my life," noting that West Virginia is currently the only state in the country ranked worse in education. In order to combat that, he pitched his Pre-K program for all Arkansas children whose parents want to place them in the program versus the current placement of children in households at 200% of poverty level. Ross pointed to Oklahoma's program that has about 75% of the state's eligible children enrolled as a sign Pre-K for all students can be accomplished in a conservative state.
Ross also noted that career and workforce education would be a priority as governor, adding that out of 100 9th graders, only an average of 20 graduate college. But making shifts in Pre-K and workforce education will not be about short-term results, he said it would be about a generational shift in Arkansas while the workforce education was more geared at the short-term solution.
"What I'm talking about is a generational thing. The quality of the Pre-K program in Arkansas is exceptional – we're ranked 11th in the country. The issue is access. And what I'm talking about doing here with Pre-K is something we're going to see the results from in 18 years, but it's past time for us to start on it."
Ross also discussed his plan to reduce taxes, saying that a third of Arkansas taxpayers are in the top tax bracket in the state. But he said the plan would be as revenues increase in the state versus an immediate tax break should he win the governor's race later this year, citing the tax cuts implemented by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback when he took office.
"Just look at Kansas and Gov. (Sam) Brownback. A $350 million deficit this year. This is not Washington. Money does not grow on trees. We must have a balanced budget. We don't print money here. I understand that and for 10 years, I helped balance the state budget as a member of the Arkansas State Senate."
Before wrapping up, Ross got in one last shot at outside interest groups spending upward of $3 million against his candidacy in the state on television.
"They're trying to convince you that I'm something that I'm not. Let me tell you the truth. And you can look it up. Each of the 12 years I served in Congress, I was named one of the most independent members of Congress by National Journal. Each of the 12 years I served, I earned an A plus rating from the National Rifle Association. I received awards from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and by the National Association of Manufacturers. And I could go on and on. And by the way, in case Asa missed this, the only time Nancy Pelosi had an opponent (in her race for Speaker of the House), I gave the nominating speech for her opponent with her sitting on the front row.”