LITTLE ROCK — The Democratic candidates for governor traded jabs Friday, with former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter criticizing ex-Congressman Mike Ross’ opposition to federal health care reform and Ross accusing Halter of making college scholarship promises he can’t keep.
The two spoke separately to more than 150 businesspeople and elected officials at the Delta Grassroots Caucus Conference held at the Clinton Presidential Center. The primary election is a year away.
The state’s two U.S. Senators, Democrat Mark Pryor and Republican John Boozman, also addressed the crowd.
Halter said during his speech that if Ross, as well as two Republicans seeking their party’s nomination — Asa Hutchinson and Curtis Coleman — had their way the state would not have been able to expand health insurance to more than 250,000 low-income workers.
The Legislature this year enacted legislation enabling a so-called private option to expanding the federal Medicaid program — using Medicaid funds to subsidize private health insurance coverage to Arkansas’ working poor.
“The three other candidates for governor, that I am aware of, if they had had their way we wouldn’t have had this option at all,” Halter said.
He said he is the only candidate who supported health care reform from the beginning. Halter told reporters later that Ross, Hutchinson and Coleman opposed the Affordable Care Act when it was proposed by President Obama in 2009 and approved by Congress in 2010.
He also said Ross, who was in Congress at the time, voted against the proposal, and voted later to repeal it.
“These things follow in sequence,” Halter said. “If you did not have a health care bill provided you wouldn’t have had a private option.”
Ross told reporters after his speech that the Affordable Care Act had “some good parts and some bad parts,” and noted that even Beebe has said that if he had been in Congress in 2010 he would have voted against it.
“We wouldn’t have the private option today without (Beebe’s) leadership,” Ross said. “I support the private option just as Gov. Beebe did.”
During his speech to the Delta Grassroots Caucus, Ross questioned how Halter could afford his proposal to provide college scholarships to all high school graduates with a 2.5 grade point average or higher.
“I’m not going to make any promises I can’t deliver,” he said.
Ross expanded on his comments with reporters later.
“Money doesn’t grow on trees and this isn’t Washington. We can’t print money, and we can’t spend more than we take in,” Ross said, noting that the Legislature recently cut taxes by $140 million over the next three years.
“By (Halter’s) terms, it’s going to take $50 million to $75 million in new money, and he says he’s not going to cut teacher pay and he’s not going to raise taxes, so you all are talking to the wrong guy; he’s the one that needs to show you all the math,” Ross said.
Halter told the Delta advocates Friday that his plan, patterned after the “Arkansas Promise” in El Dorado, would be funded with lottery revenue, $20 million a year the state now contributes to the Academic Challenge Scholarship program from general revenue, federal grants, like the Pell Grant, philanthropic contributions and an additional $50 million to $75 million a year in state general revenue.
Halter told reporters later he believes his scholarship plan can be funded without having to raise taxes or cut services.
“There are initiatives that are taken in every legislative session,” he said, adding that the state has a budget of nearly $5 billion and revenue growth is forecast over the new few years, at least.
“I’ve said we will do this without raising taxes,” he said.