Gubernatorial Candidates Discuss Private Option, Taxes, Education

by Lee Hogan  on Friday, Jun. 13, 2014 12:29 pm  

Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson and Democratic candidate Mike Ross

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mike Ross and Republican nominee Asa Hutchinson expressed differing viewpoints on the future of the state's private option while speaking to the Delta Grassroots Caucus conference Friday.

The two former congressmen, now vying for Arkansas governor, took part in half-hour, question-and-answer sessions at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock that included inquiries on the candidates' stances on issues like the private option, education and taxes, among other topics.

Hutchinson said he was optimistic the state Legislature, which convenes in January, would do the "right thing" concerning the state's Medicaid expansion plan, but did not directly answer whether he would support reauthorizing the private option.

"We will do the right thing, in terms of making adjustments needed to reflect the values of Arkansas and to make sure this program is an incentive for people to work and not an incentive for people not to work," he said.

Hutchinson said the state is still learning about the private option and that it's important to evaluate whether the program, which provides health insurance to more than 150,000 low-income Arkansans, is affordable in the long term.

Hutchinson said the private option has been good for rural hospitals in the state, but has shifted charitable care to government care.

"When you go across Arkansas, the Christian, or faith-based, or charitable care that doctors provided through health care clinics no longer have a mission," he said. "That charitable care has been shifted to the government."

Hutchinson said he would like to see the charitable missions return.

On the other hand, Ross was quick to voice support for the state's expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

"I would have voted for it, I would have signed it and as governor, I will protect funding for private option," he said. 

Speaking to criticism of the private option based on its role in the new federal health care law, Ross said the private option was "so creative, so innovative, so different" from the Affordable Care Act that the state had to seek federal government approval. Ross also pointed to its benefits for Arkansas' rural hospitals.

The candidates also offered differing vantage points on pre-K education in Arkansas.

Ross championed his plan that would provide learning to every 4-year-old in the state. The plan would open the program to families making 300 percent below the poverty level, and eventually cost the state $37.4 million a year after fully implemented. The current program allows children of families making less than 200 percent of the poverty level.

Hutchinson called his opponent's proposal the "wrong direction" for the state, and said he believes the focus should be put on the state's current plan that is not adequately funded.

"Why would we want to create a new government program when we're not funding the existing program?" Hutchinson said. 

Ross said his plan and funding would be rolled out in fiscally responsible phases.

"I would love to stand here and tell you that hopefully I can get this passed in the legislative session in January and within months we could have every 4-year-old in this stated enrolled in a pre-K program," he said. "It's going to take some time and that's why my plan phases it in."

Ross and Hutchinson also outlined their previously released tax plans. Ross' proposal would adjust the state's income tax brackets by making a 1997 law, which tied brackets to inflation, retroactive. Hutchinson's tax proposal would lower the income tax rate, which the GOP nominee said is important to make Arkansas' rate competitive with surrounding states.

While the gubernatorial candidates differed on various topics, both said they would be against more of the state's general revenue going toward funding for the Academic Challenge Scholarship. In addition, Ross and Hutchinson both expressed the need for more local control of Common Core education standards.



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