PRELIMINARIES: A friendly handshake preceded a debate that showed sharp differences between Mike Ross (left) and Asa Hutchinson in which Ross illustrated sharp policy disagreements. Brian Chilson

Democrat Mike Ross and Republican Asa Hutchinson met in debate today before the Arkansas Press Association, joined by Green Party candidate Josh Drake and Libertarian Frank Gilbert. Sharp differences emerged, particularly on the minimum wage and health care coverage for low-income working people.

I’d score the debate for Ross, who needs a lift according to most recent polls.  He scored points on policy differences and took some firm positions on easy issues where, even though Hutchinson might not have had a different point of view, he didn’t make the point so clearly. Example: Ross made it clear, with repeat emphasis, that he opposed an expansion of the lottery into electronic games.


Ross closed by saying he was fed up with extremes of both parties and, though a proud Democrat, not running to be governor of the Democrats. “I’m a pro-business, pro-gun God fearing Democrat,” he said. He wrapped himself in popular Gov. Mike Beebe and the governor’s quick-action closing fund that Ross said had created hundreds of jobs. Hutchinson has deridedit  as a “slush fund.” Ross said Hutchinson was completely disconnected from working families.

Hutchinson disputed that he was out of touch. But, rather than demonstrate his common touch, he emphasized Ross’ work with Democratic leaders in Washington, namely Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. He characterized Ross as a “conflicted conservative” trying to save the Democratic Party. He said his computer science initiative would produce thousands of high school graduates equpped to “change the dynamic” of the state.


Want issues? You got ’em. Ross supports minimum wage increase and the existing private option insurance plan that has provided coverage for 200,000 people. Hutchinson doesn’t.  Hutchinson tax plans doesn’t help 40 percent of Arkansas workes. Ross’ would.

Hutchinson ran like a front-runner. Lots of world salad. Ross pressed issues. Republicans dragged out their new favorite meme — he’s angry. They used that on me the other day when I ran down a list of Cotton deficiencies.


The opening:

* GILBERT: Hes’ been a businessman, Bauxite school employee, former coroner, Tull mayor and constable. He’d be a different governor. He said Republicans and Democrats were little different.

* HUTCHINSON: He has a “passion” for economic development. He has a plan, including income tax cuts, high expectations and “choice” in education and health care and regulatory “reform.” 

* DRAKE: A lawyer, he echoed Gilbert in saying there’s not much choice from only the Democratic and Republican candidates. He believes in health care,progressive tax reform, protecting the environment — particularly water. 


* ROSS: Never a candidate for statewide office (Asa has lost three times), he listed his background as a county, state and U.S. elected officer. He said he’d balance the budget (the constiitution leaves no choices); he’s a Blue Dog; he wants to be “the education governor.” He mentioned his pre-K plan, a desk for all 4-year-olds, regardless of “income or zip code.” He echoed Hutchinson on advocacy for technical workforce education as an alternative to college.


* Drake said the Constitution guarantees equal protection. Churches can do whatever they want, but hundreds of governmental benefits should be given equally. Gay couples should get the same benefits given heterosexual couples.

* Hutchinson said supports the gay marriage ban in the Arkansas Constitution. He said the Supreme Court hasn’t settled the question. “We need to hold our breath here and have it work its way back up to the Supreme Court.”

* Gilbert said the state should “stay out of that business.” He said he was offended when a Baptist preacher who married him spoke of authority vested in him. “How offensive is it to have the state of Arkansas tell anyone that they must be married or cannot be married? Stay out of it.”

* Ross agreed with Hutchinson. He said marriage should be between one man and one woman. The issue will be resolved by the Supreme Court and it’s not an issue in the race.


Ross jumped from same-sex marriage to challenge Hutchinson an area of disagreement.He said Hutchinson’s income tax plan won’t provide any cuts to the lowest 40 percent of wage earners and he also said Hutchinson opposes an increase in the minimum wage. A minimum wage earner makes $13,000 a year. Ross said that’s  $2,000 less than Hutchinson makes for a short paid speech.

Hutchinson responded that the minimum wage of $6.25 anhour should be at least raised to the federal $7.25 minimum, but said the legislature should do it, not voters. The legislature has refused any raise, however, since 2006. Ross said he trusted the voters of Arkansas and they deserved an opportunity to vote. “I’ll be voting yes in November.” He said the proposal to raise the minimum to $8.50 by 2017 was fair.



* Hutchinson continued to dodge. He said there’s a question about the state affording it over time and whether it’s accomplishing its purpose. For or against as it is written? He didn’t say. What should be changed? He didn’t say.

* Ross said he voted to repeal the Affordable Care act because it was too big and too costly. But he said the private option was “one of the good parts.” Hospitals overwhelmingly support it and states who’ve refused the money have harmed hospitals. The private option is bipartisan and market-based. And it helps people whjo are trying to do the right thing by working. Is it going to the right people, Hutchinson asked. Yes we are Ross said definitively. He’d have signed it and he’ll protect it.

* Gilbert opposed private option unequivocally. Drake said he supported universal health care.

Hutchinson’s rebuttal focused only on Ross and his early committee votes, not on Ross’ criticism of him.  Ross said he never took a committee vote on the health care act and that Hutchinson was lying about his record as other opponents have. He must have been busy lobbying or making $600 an hour as a lawyer, Ross said.

More on prison crowding and hog farming in the Buffalo River watershed, the lottery and taxes.


Ross said tougher sentences would reduce repeat offenders. Alternative sentencing for non-violent offenders also holds promise for lower recidivism rates, he said. Hutchinson said he favored effective parole and re-entry and drug courts. If Hutchinson thinks $300,000 a year would add much heft to the parole system he needs to return to arithmetic classes. Ross said it figures out to about $5 per inmate. That won’t cut it, he said.


The moderator asked if a river in the Buffalo watershed deserved special protection.

Ross said the area was special. He said the approval process was a mistake and public hearings weren’t sufficient. The permitting process needs to be changed. But, having said that, he said the farmer had done nothing wrong and the governor is testing for damage to the environment. Should harm be found, appropriate action would be taken if he was governor.

Hutchinson said the Buffalo needed to be protected “at any cost.” He said he wasn’t sure the state needed large-scale industrial hog operations, but he said the farmer had not done anything wrong. But, though he seemed to suggest problems in the permitting process on this farm, he said the permitting process should be sttreamlined and faster. Would that allow closer inspection of problematic developments or less inspection?

Drake said he favored giving the state environmental agency more power to stop such operations. He also said he’d smelled the air in Louisiana — which Hutchinson lauded for its speedy permitting process — and he’d rather smell the air in Arkansas.


None of the candidates evinced much fondness for the lottery. Drake wondered why there’s a monopoly on gambling in Arkansas. If it’s to be allowed at casinos at Oaklawn and Southland, why not more competition. “If we’re going to have it, it needs to be fair.”

Hutchinson said he’d support changes in lottery operation. He said the lottery commission’s independence and appointment by multiple officials makes it harder to coordinate. More influence from the governor would help, he said.

Gilbert quoted Bill Clinton, who once said there’d be less revenue than predicted and theft, both of which came true.

Ross said the legislature should continue to have a role in oversight and he praised the legislature for stopping keno game, which he said he opposed. He said he didn’t think voters had electronic games in convenience stores in mind. He said money has dropped, as expected, but that the state needs to make the best of it by directing the maximum amount of revenue to college scholarships.


Hutchinson repeated his plan to reduce the top rate on incomes of those between $20,000 and $75,000. He said the middle income had been squeezed. He said the poor already had a low rate.

Ross said he’d gradually raise the income at which the top rate applies and achieve it with revenue growth over time. He noted that Hutchinson had said in one of his losing statewide races that Beebe couldn’t remove the sales tax on groceries. He’s all but done it.

It’s a travesty, said Ross, that 40 percent of the people in Arkansas, all hard working, would get no benefit from Hutchinson’s tax plan. It shows how totally disconnected he is from working families in Arkansas,” Ross said. The Ross campaign also noted Hutchinson’s opposition to a manufacturer’s tax credit that Ross has championed.