By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
The race for U.S. Senate features two candidates of completely different ideologies, approaches, backgrounds and temperaments. If you believe that Sen. Mark Pryor is right, then you almost have to believe that Rep. Tom Cotton is wrong.
The race for governor between former Rep. Asa Hutchinson and former Rep. Mike Ross? Not so much. State government, as opposed to D.C. politics, tends to force both parties to the center anyway, and that’s definitely the case this year.
Friday night’s testy televised governor’s debate sponsored by KARK illustrated the candidates’ differences that are not so different. As they have throughout this campaign, they disagreed, sometimes personally, on policies but not so much on goals. You know those online roadmap programs where you type in your starting point and your destination and are presented three routes that eventually converge? One of those routes is Hutchinson, and one is Ross.
For example, Hutchinson says he wants to be the “jobs governor,” while Ross says he wants to be the “education governor.” But both men know the state needs a good education system to create jobs, and both men know it needs jobs to pay for a good education system.
Both candidates want to cut income taxes by reforming the state’s tax code, which hasn’t been modernized since 1971 and therefore places Arkansans earning only $34,000 a year in the highest tax bracket of 7 percent. Hutchinson would reduce rates for Arkansans earning from $20,400 to $75,000. Ross would raise the top tax bracket’s minimum income to $75,100, meaning it would capture fewer Arkansans. Hutchinson would implement his plan next year; Ross would phase in his over time but says his would be bigger.
Different? Sure. But either candidate could have proposed either plan.
On some other issues, the candidates largely agree. They’re both not crazy about the state spending $100 million to build another prison and would like to consider alternative sentences. They both support keeping the Governor’s Quick Action Closing Fund, which gives the governor a pile of money to use to attract employers.
Even some areas of disagreement are largely differences of degree. For example, Ross’ signature education proposal would increase state pre-kindergarten funding for four-year-olds so that it eventually covers all families with incomes up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level. It currently covers families up to 200 percent but is not fully funded. Pre-K is not really Hutchinson’s thing, but he says he’d fully fund it up to 200 percent.
Those are real differences with consequences, but they don’t represent radically different visions of what the state should look like.
As for the state’s Medicaid private option, Ross is clearly a defender. Hutchinson has not said he’s against it, which means he’s mostly for it. If Ross is elected governor, he’ll probably fight Republicans in the Legislature to keep it largely as it is. If Hutchinson wins, he’ll probably work with Republican legislators to change it without trashing it. Neither would jeopardize his tax cut plan by refusing billions of federal dollars currently insuring 200,000 Arkansans.
Even their backgrounds are not that different. They both tout their modest, middle class upbringings. They both are establishment-type candidates who have spent a lot of time in Washington, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Hutchinson was elected to Congress in 1996 and then served as director of the Drug Enforcement Administration and then as under secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Ross spent 12 years in Congress. Ross is a conservative Democrat and Hutchinson is a conservative Republican, but neither are bomb-throwers.
Of course these two men are different, and they would be different governors. But if you are a Hutchinson supporter, you could probably live with Mike Ross, and vice versa. Arkansas state government under either man would look about the same, while 100 Tom Cottons in the U.S. Senate would produce very different results than 100 Mark Pryors.