This discussion with Mike Ross is the second installment of KUAR's interviews with gubernatorial candidates in the Republican and Democratic primaries.
See here for the interview with Mike Ross's opponent in the primary Lynette Bryant.
Joshua Drake has already secured the Green Party's nomination. Frank Gilbert was nominated by the Libertarian Party.
Kauffman: Thanks for listening, I’m Jacob Kauffman with KUAR. Former Congressman and Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Mike Ross joins me in the studio. Thanks for being here.
Ross: Well, thanks Jacob it’s great to be with you.
Kauffman: I want to begin by focusing on economic development. What are your feelings on state investment in the private sector for projects such as Big River Steel?
Ross: I support that. Obviously we’ve got to be competitive with other states on the super projects. We also need to be focused on helping small businesses grow and to create more small businesses, about half of the new jobs in America come from small businesses.
We need to make sure that when we work real hard to get an industry here that we focus on job retention to make sure they stay here, they continue to modernize, they continue to grow and put more people to work. I’ve been doing economic development all my life and I can tell you, you can have the best roads, you can have the best infrastructure, but you’ve got to have an educated, trained, and skilled workforce.
That’s why I believe education and job creation go hand in hand and they along with lower, fairer taxes...is really what my positive vision for the future of this state is all about. That’s why I’m calling for an expanded pre-K program.
I have a pre-K initiative to ensure that every four year old in the state whose parents want them in pre-K will have a desk in a pre-K classroom. I think it’s very important. We also ought to do a better job of getting kids career ready, college ready…we’re 49th in America in terms of adults with a college degree, we can do better.
Kauffman: I want to touch on that plan a little bit later on in the interview, your pre-k plan…but Arkansas’s current tax structure has lower income residents paying a higher percentage of their income than wealthier residents. Can you detail your tax plan?
Ross: Yeah, you know the state income tax code was written in 1971 when the median household income was $8,000 a year and gas was 36 cents a gallon. Today the median household income is still too low, it’s $40,000 a year and gas today’s about $3.50 a gallon.
For 25 years they did not index the income brackets that determine the income tax rates you pay for inflation and as a result they’re out of whack and it needs to be fixed. We have six state income tax rates in Arkansas and yet 60 percent of hard working Arkansans are in the top two rates. One out of every three is in the top rate. In fact, the top rate starts at $34,000 a year which means a single mom working two jobs trying to make ends meet is paying the same state income tax rate as someone making $340,000 a year or someone making $3.4 million a year. It’s not fair and I’m going to fix it.
Kauffman: Do you think the state’s, and some of the world’s most successful companies, places like Wal Mart and Tyson, direct their profit margins to employees in a way that you find fair and reasonable?
Ross: Well, I mean that’s…I think every private industry, private corporation probably approaches that differently and that’s a decision for them to make. I’m a former small business owner and I can tell you that if you want to attract and retain the most qualified employees you gotta pay them well and provide them the benefits, and treat them with the dignity and respect that they deserve. But it’s up to each individual corporation on how they do that.
Kauffman: Could you articulate your position on the private option – Arkansas’s plan to use expanded eligibility and funds from the Affordable Care Act, intended for the federally run Medicaid program, but used to purchase private insurance for low-income residents - would you have supported it in 2013 and this last fiscal session?
Ross: I support the private option, I would have voted for it, I would have signed it, and as governor I’m going to protect the funding for the Medicaid expansion the so-called private option. Here’s why: for those people that are opposed to the Affordable Care Act they need to understand that the only part of the Affordable Care Act that state governments have any control over is the Medicaid expansion piece and what we did in Arkansas in a bipartisan manner with a Republican legislature and a Democratic governor is so far removed from the Affordable Care Act that they had to go to the federal government and get a waiver approved to be able to implement it.
But the Affordable Care Act in order to pay for the Affordable Care Act cut reimbursements to hospitals but they said the hospitals will be okay because they’re going to start getting paid to treat people that they’ve been treating for free through this Medicaid expansion. For states that aren’t doing the Medicaid expansion their hospitals are still receiving those significant cuts to hospitals and in fact a few rural hospitals in some of the states that have refused to do the Medicaid expansion have gone out of business.
So, it’s the right thing to do for our rural hospitals. It’s also the right thing and the compassionate thing to do because we already have nearly 150,000 working Arkansans who signed up for this. I hear people say, 'well I don’t want to provide health insurance to people who do not want to work.' Well guess what they’re already getting it. They already qualify for Medicaid.
This Medicaid expansion addresses people who are trying to do the right thing and stay off welfare but they’re working the jobs with no benefits. Then it saves the state about $89 million a year. Some people have trouble comprehending or understanding how that could be. Well you know as you drove to work today you didn’t see diseased, sick people laying in the ditch. We have state run programs that provide uncompensated care for those that don’t have insurance.
Through the private option or the Medicaid expansion we’ll no longer need those uncompensated care programs. From a fiscal standpoint it makes sense, from helping save our hospitals and from a compassionate standpoint it makes sense and for the life of me I don’t understand why anybody would be against that.
Kauffman: The state legislature has aggressively pursued restrictions on abortion. Do you support those efforts, including an act currently being challenged banning most abortions after 12 weeks?
Ross: Look, I’m personally opposed to abortion but I do believe there should be exceptions for example: life, health of the mother, rape, incest...and so the bottom line is I think abortions should be safe, legal, and rare. As governor I’m not going to sign…when I’m sworn in as governor I have to put my hand on the bible and swear to uphold the Constitution of Arkansas. I’m not going to sign any bills that I know are unconstitutional.
The bans you’re referring to I said over a year ago I would have vetoed the bills just as Governor Beebe did for the same reasons that he did. If you go back and look at his veto letter it has nothing to do whether you’re for or against abortion. It had to do with a constitutional issue.
Kauffman: Regarding environmental issues…many in the state are re-examining their positions on oil pipelines after the spill in Mayflower. That fear of pollution and contamination extends to other industries like natural gas drilling and the practice of fracking and also the building of an industrial hog farm on the Buffalo River. I know those are very distinct issues but if you could just touch on each of them briefly. Do you support further regulation in those areas or do you believe current standards are sufficient to safeguard Arkansans?
Ross: Well, Arkansas is commonly known as the natural state. I think we’ve got to be good stewards of the land that God has provided us and loaned us. I think that we have to have a balance between protecting the environment and creating more good paying jobs. I think you have to look at it on a case by case basis.
I’ve got a real concern of an oil pipeline passing through or near central Arkansas’s only water supply. That concerns me greatly and I personally believe that pipeline should be relocated outside of the Maumelle watershed.
The hog farm in my opinion it should have never been permitted, it was. The Buffalo National River, America’s first national river, creates not only so much natural beauty there but it’s a big part of tourism in Arkansas. I can tell you that I don’t believe it should’ve been located there. As governor I would be opposed to locating any additional hog farms within the Buffalo National River watershed area and I think we must continue to regularly do tests to determine if there’s any harm to the environment caused by the existing hog farm that is there.
Hopefully everyone will come together and reach a common sense solution on that. I’m a big believer that if you own land you ought to be able to do with your land what you want but there’s got to be exceptions. I would think land located so close in proximity to the Buffalo National River would certainly meet one of those exceptions.
Kauffman: What are your thoughts on the future of the state’s natural gas drilling industry? Are you at all concerned about the ubiquitous pictures of people lighting their water on fire, we’ve seen from other states. What’s your thoughts on the future of that industry?
Ross: Yeah, I support fracking. I think it can be done in an environmentally responsible manner. I think that’s occurring in Arkansas. Natural gas is a huge part of our economy in Arkansas. It creates a lot of good paying jobs and it reduces our dependence on foreign oil.
Kauffman: Going back to education and your pre-K plan…higher-ed officials will tell you their budgets aren’t keeping up with costs, that goes the line to pre-K. Tell us a little bit about those plans.
Ross: Surprisingly less than half of the four year olds in Arkansas are enrolled in pre-K. In Little Rock for example every four year whose parents want them to go to pre-K has a seat in a pre-K classroom. Lake Hamilton School District, the 20th largest school district in Arkansas near Hot Springs does not even have a pre-K program. Fayetteville, only five of the nine elementary schools have a pre-K program and each of those has a pretty long waiting list to get in. To me it’s about more choices for parents.
If a parent wants to send their four year old to pre-K there should not be a waiting list for them to get into pre-K. I’ve got a plan to address that, it’s a major part of my positive vision for the future of this state. Here’s why: we know if you go to pre-K you’re less likely to repeat a grade, you’re more likely to graduate high school, you’re more likely to go to college, graduate college, you’re more likely as an adult to be employed when other people are not, and you’re less likely to end up on government assistance, you’re much less likely to end up in prison.
From the time we’re born through the third grade we’re learning to read and from the fourth grade through the rest of our life we’re reading to learn. Studies tell us when you hit the fourth grade if you’re still trying to learn to read while you’re reading to learn you fall behind and you often times do not get caught back up.
To fully implement the plan, which we can not do overnight because it’s more than just money, we could fully implement the plan...every four year old whose parents want them in a pre-K or a private pre-K participating in the ABC program in Arkansas…which by the way is ranked 11th in American in terms of curriculum. They’re doing an outstanding job it’s not the quality of the program. The issue is having enough seats in the classrooms which is why we can’t do this overnight.
There’s limited classroom space, we need more teachers, so it’s going to have to be phased in. In a way that’s responsible and that will work. But to fully fund the program will take about $37 million under my proposal. The leading Republican candidate in this race Asa Hutchinson says we can’t afford that yet he says we can afford $100 million in tax cuts in year one.
It’s about priorities and for me I believe with our young people we need to start sooner, we need to finish stronger, and if we do that we can reduce the number of young people who need to be remediated when they get to college which is costing the state $43 million a year.
Kauffman: Can you comment on your plans for higher education?
Ross: We’re 49th in America in terms of adults with a college degree we’ve got to improve on that. We’ve got to do a better job of getting our kids college ready, career ready, to continue to make college affordable, accessible for young people. I’m a strong proponent of that.
While I was in Congress I voted to increase Pell Grants, cut student loan interest rates in half. But here’s what we need to do. If you look at a hundred ninth graders today, 20 of them aren’t going to graduate high school, 40 are going to go to college but only 20 are going to graduate college. So what about the other 80?
For a lot of young people today they feel like they’re looked down upon if they don’t go to college and they feel like they have three choices: college, military, minimum wage. There’s a fourth option out there called career tech, I still call it vo-tech, but career tech's where you can go to a two year community college, you can go to a technical school and in two years you can learn a skill, you can get a certification, and you can make a good living.
I was talking with the President of American Electric Power, AEP, the other day and he was telling me that in a shorter period of time than I will spend campaigning for governor I could become a certified electrical lineman and ironically make a lot more than the governor makes. My point is that there are good paying jobs out there that require technical skills, require certifications, but don’t necessarily require a four year degree.
If we want those good paying jobs to come to Arkansas it starts with that. We’ve got to have an educated, trained, and skilled workforce and so I think we need a greater emphasis on career tech as well as an emphasis on encouraging people to go to college and focus in those areas where there’s a huge demand for jobs from teaching, to nursing, to healthcare to engineers, and the list goes on and on.
Kauffman: You’ve been hearing from Mike Ross who will face Lynette Bryant in the Democratic Primary on May 20th. Thanks for joining with us today
Ross: Well thank you for your time and I appreciate the opportunity to join you and I hope people will learn more at mikeross.com