Hutchinson, challengers debate in Eureka Springs
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is seeking a second term as the state’s chief executive officer, and challengers Jared Henderson and Mark West engaged in a markedly polite, almost collegial debate on Friday, June 29, in Eureka Springs.
The debate was held in conjunction with the Arkansas Press Association’s annual super-convention, and a crowd of approximately 100 journalists and newspaper leaders were on hand to watch at the Inn of the Ozarks.
Although the candidates maintained an air of decorum and there was no mud-slinging or personal attacks, there were some notable differences in their positions.
While Hutchinson declined to endorse or oppose the controversial Issue 1 — a proposed constitutional amendment that would impose caps on damages and attorney’s fees in certain lawsuits — both Henderson, a Democrat, and the Libertarian West expressed strong opposition to it.
Hutchinson said he was concerned about some parts of the proposal and would announce his official position on the issue in the fall.
Henderson and West weren’t so ambivalent.
“It would give more power to the Legislature, and I would be against that, whichever party controlled it,” Henderson said. “This amendment would put the Legislature in control of legal and medical matters.”
West said the proposal would violate a basic tenet of American democracy.
“It violates the concept of separation of powers,” West said. “It puts way too much of the judiciary under the control of the legislative branch, where it can be politicized. Libertarians believe in the separation of powers, and this is at odds with the whole concept. I see it as overreach.”
While Hutchinson touted his administration’s record of job growth and spending cuts, Henderson and West pointed out that while areas such as Little Rock and Northwest Arkansas are growing, many of the state’s smaller, rural counties aren’t experiencing the same kind of prosperity. Henderson repeated his contention that there are “two Arkansases” — with seven counties experiencing sustained economic growth and the other 68 lagging behind.
In the wake of a corruption scandal that has led to the arrest and prosecution of several state legislators, all three candidates agreed that the state’s ethics laws need to be strengthened.
“Right now, the Arkansas Plant Board has more penalizing authority than the Ethics Commission,” Hutchinson said. “That needs to change.”
The last major ethics legislation in Arkansas was sponsored by former state Sen. Jon Woods, who was recently convicted on federal charges in a kickback scheme linked to Ecclesia College in Springdale, Hutchinson pointed out.
West said it’s not practical to expect the Legislature to enforce meaningful ethics laws.
“It’s the police policing the police,” he said.
Arkansas’ education system was also a hot topic. Henderson said state and federal regulations have limited teachers’ ability to focus on actual instruction and that the state’s teacher salaries make it difficult to recruit and retain teachers.
Hutchinson pointed out that teacher salaries have grown during his administration and said his goal is to increase the minimum starting salary for a teacher in Arkansas to $36,000.
Such an increase, he said, would give Arkansas the highest minimum starting salary for teachers in the region.