Wednesday, February 10, 2016

TOP STORY >> Challenger runs against Williams

Leader staff writer

Dist. 29 Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot) is being challenged in his re-election bid by Republican R.D. Hopper, a Lonoke County justice of the peace.

Early voting for the March 1 primary will begin on Tuesday, Feb. 16.

Both attended a meet-and-greet hosted by the Ward Chamber of Commerce on Friday.

Williams said he’d like to continue serving because “There’s a lot of unfinished work.”

Hopper is running because, he said, people who have served a few terms at the Capitol have “become ingrained into the establishment” and are focusing on “big fish” corporations like Walmart and Axiom. He said he wants to represent small businesses.

Williams touted introducing legislation last year that paves the way for reducing government and wasteful spending by consolidating state agencies.

There are about 200 agencies now, and Williams said he’d like to see that number lowered to 100.

Another idea is privatizing some prisons to make cuts there. The senator, at the request of the governor, is leading that effort and directing an in-depth audit of that system.

A Texarkana company is being paid $35 a day to house inmates, while it costs the state $65 a day to do so, Williams said. He noted that Arkansas spends about 7.6 percent of its general revenue on that system, compared to the 5.2 percent other states spend.

The senator said he’d talked to hundreds who agree there is at least 10 percent waste in state government. Williams’ goal is to eliminate that much from the Senate-controlled $5 billion in general revenue, resulting in savings of $500 million, savings that would allow lawmakers to reduce the tax burden on Arkansans.

Hopper said one of the most pressing issues facing the state is Medicaid being in “jeopardy.” He said 200,000 people eligible for Obamacare are on the state’s Medicaid program and Arkansas taxpayers are taking care of them.

Hopper noted that the federal government is cutting back its first 5 percent in funding to that program next year, and the governor has proposed cutting $835 million from traditional recipients.

The JP has a problem with that because those traditional recipients are the states “most vulnerable citizens” — the physically and mentally disabled or handicapped — and 70 percent of the Obamacare people are able to work.

Williams told The Leader he’s proud to have supported a $100 million tax cut for middle-income families and passed a law that adds a fine for those convicted of committing a crime to or in the presence of a child. The fines will help fund child advocacy centers that don’t receive money from the state right now.

Hopper wants to do away with the “unfair” used car tax, citing that Arkansas can afford to do so because it has an average surplus of $48 million a year, according to the governor.

Williams noted that he wants to take Arkansas from “dead last to a respectable position” in education.

Although he says he’s one of the few blessed with great schools in his district, at the state level, “we need to continue to raise the bar.”

He wants broadband in every school and noted that Common Core is constantly being tweaked. The senator said he’d met with all superintendents in his district and they say changes must be made slowly and efficiently. He also said kids are being tested too much.

Williams said he was not a proponent of the PARCC exam based on Common Core, adding that Arkansas has now switched to ACT Aspire.

Hopper is opposed to Common Core, which he says his opponent voted for three times.

He argued that it’s not good for children to have social engineering that includes homosexuality as a topic in the curriculum. The JP also said Common Core teaches younger kids math they aren’t ready for, and it’s stressing them out.

Hopper wants to give the school board and teachers the power to set a curriculum and that teachers need more flexibility than Common Core allows.

Williams touted traveling, at his own expense, to Cuba to place the state in a position for when sanctions are lifted. That country, losing half of its drinking water before it reaches the faucets, needs better infrastructure that Arkansas can provide, he said.

Williams would also like to see Arkansas companies selling energy to Puerto Rico, which is spending 40 cents per kilowatt hour compared to the 7.23-cent average here.