LITTLE ROCK — Social Security, health care and Arkansas’ minimum wage were among the issues that candidates for state and national office addressed Friday at the Delta Grassroots Caucus Conference.
Seven candidates spoke on the second day of the two-day conference at the Clinton Presidential Center, including U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who is facing a tough re-election challenge from U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle.
Pryor told the group he is working to protect Social Security and Medicare. He said he used the think the programs were safe, but now “I’m worried.”
“I’ve been watching what is going on down the hall in the House, where they a number of years in a row now have voted to do things like increase the age up to 70, do things like turn Medicare over the private insurance companies and turn it into a voucher system,” he said.
Cotton spokesman David Ray said in a statement Friday, “Sen. Pryor (just two years ago!) advocated for increasing the Social Security age to 68 or 69.”
Ray provided a video clip of Pryor telling a reporter, “You could pretty easily make Social Security solvent in perpetuity. Probably the biggest change would be, you would take my kids’ generation, teenagers today … and probably say that they couldn’t get Social Security until they turn 68 or 69. If you just did that one change you could fix about 80 percent of it right there.”
Pryor told reporters he favors reforming Social Security and other entitlement programs in ways that protect seniors.
“I think we sit down, we talk about that and see what we can come up with. But I absolutely do not support raising the age to 70,” he said.
Pryor also said he strongly supported an early version of the farm bill that Cotton, alone among the Arkansas delegation, voted against.
“If there is any one single piece of legislation that helps Arkansas, it’s the farm bill,” Pryor said.
Cotton told the group Thursday he voted against the bill because 80 percent of the spending in it was for food stamps.
Pryor said the Affordable Care Act, which he voted for, “is not perfect,” but he has been working to fix problems with it.
“When I talk to my Republican friends about it I say, give me something better and I’ll vote for it,” he said.
Pryor also said he supports the Paycheck Fairness Act, which seeks to reduce the pay gap between men and women.
“Women are a hugely important part of our economy, and I would argue at least in the Arkansas Delta, they’re a hugely important part of the Delta’s economy as well, so we need to make sure they get equal pay,” he said.
Other speakers Friday included the major-party candidates for governor, Republican Asa Hutchinson and Democrat Mike Ross.
On the private option, Arkansas’ version of Medicaid expansion, Hutchinson said, “I will work in a bipartisan way, with Democrats and Republicans, to figure out the right solution that is unique for our state, to make sure that we can advance health care in Arkansas but also make sure that it’s affordable for our state’s future.”
Asked if he supports the Common Core academic standards, the former congressman said he supports high standards but also favors giving local school district flexibility.
“My education commissioner will take a fresh look at that,” he said.
Asked if he supports a proposed ballot measure to increase Arkansas’ minimum wage, Hutchinson said he would rather see the Legislature take up the issue.
Ross told the group he voted against the Affordable Care Act but supports the private option, which he said is helping hospitals stay open and is “the right thing to do.”
“I have not danced around it and I’ll be very clear with you: I would have voted for it, I would have signed it, and as governor I’ll protect funding for the Medicaid expansion, the so-called private option here in Arkansas,” he said.
On Common Core, the former congressman said there is a lot of misinformation about the standards, which he said did not originate with the federal government but with state governors. Ross said he favors ensuring that “Arkansas always has control over its curriculum.”
Ross also said he supports the proposed ballot measure on raising Arkansas’ minimum wage.
James Lee Witt, Democratic candidate for the 4th District congressional seat, said he would have voted against the Affordable Care Act because he believes it is flawed.
“But it is the law, and I don’t think we need to repeal the law,” he said. “I think we just need to work together in a bipartisan way to fix it.”
The former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said the nation should “pull out all stops” to become energy independent, “whether it’s oil, gas, coal, whatever.” He said is concerned about the Environmental Protection Agency’s newly proposed regulations on carbon emissions and would rather see Arkansas set its own carbon standards.
Witt said he supports raising Arkansas’ minimum wage and supports equal pay for women.
Witt’s Republican opponent, state Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, said he believes the Affordable Care Act is unsustainable. He said he favors repealing it and replacing it with a block grant program that would give states complete control over Medicaid funding.
“The ideal program would be one that takes administrative power away from the federal government and places it with a state government,” he said.
Westerman said he opposes the EPA’s proposed carbon emission standards, which he called “unfair attacks on our pocketbooks.”
He said he supports equal pay for equal work, but “I’m not for policy that forces companies to do that. I think companies should be doing that because it’s the right thing to do.”
Heber Springs Mayor Jackie McPherson, Democratic challenger to 1st District U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, said he would not have voted for the Affordable Care Act, but “I think it’s here to stay, and I’m going to work to make it as good and as efficient as we possibly can.”
On energy policy, McPherson said the nation should not put “all its eggs in one basket” but should rely on a variety of sources, including coal, while working to make those energies cleaner.
“They’ve made a lot of headway with cleaner coal burning,” he said.
McPherson said he supports the proposed ballot measure to raise Arkansas’ minimum wage and federal legislation to ensure equal pay for women.
Crawford spoke at the conference Thursday.
The group also heard a live audio address Friday from former President Bill Clinton, who praised the caucus for the work it does to improve the quality of life in the Delta.