Tuesday, April 18, 2017

TOP STORY >> Cotton, Hill grilled at town hall in LR

Leader senior staff writer

The tone was sometimes confrontational and occasionally accusatory Monday afternoon as Sen. Tom Cotton and Second District Rep. French Hill, both Republicans, took submitted questions from a town hall crowd of about 900 constituents.

About three rows front and center and two front rows stage right at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Little Rock were filled mostly by supporters of President Trump, Cotton and Hill, with others scattered amongst the crowd of constituents opposed to many of the actions taken and being taken by Trump and a Republican Congress.

Despite being called out by many audience speakers, neither lawmaker seemed to lose his composure. Two audience members argued over the top of the seated audience before the protester took himself out of the room rather than let it escalate.

A Cotton staffer said the meeting was smaller and less angry than an earlier town hall meeting in Springdale.

Another Cotton staffer estimated the capacity of the two banquet roomsat 700 to 800, but the folding wall on a third room was opened and chairs brought in for 100 to 150 more people.

The meeting, slated to run from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. extended until nearly 3:30 p.m.

Moderator Rex Nelson called on about 20 questioners. One from Jacksonville and one from Sherwood were among the last.

Bern Bradley of Jacksonville asked the lawmakers about what he called Trump’s promises. “He promised the American people that whatever replaced Obamacare would be better, easier and cheaper and would cover everyone,” he said.

Bradley said he underwent heart surgeries as a young child and until Obamacare took effect, requiring insurance companies to accept those with pre-existing conditions, he was unable to purchase health insurance.

“Will you two commit to us today that you will fulfill that promise and not vote for anything that doesn’t do that?” Bradley asked.

“I think that’s why you see the president being personally so engaged in trying to achieve those goals,” Hill said to a chorus of boos.

“I like Sen. Cotton’s point of slowing the process down,” Hill added.

Cotton is among lawmakers who didn’t support the Republican health-care bill considered by the House. “I’d rather get it right than get it fast,” he has said.

Elton Tevebaugh of Sher-wood, who came looking for assurances that Congress would forgive or help alleviate the hardship on those with student loans, left unsatisfied.

“I’m a full-time student at UALR, and I’ve incurred about $45,000 to $50,000 in student-loan debt. What would you be able to do to influence either forgiving the loan” or finding a more suitable solution? he asked.

Instead of the hoped-for promise of help, Hill told him that he and others should have been more diligent in seeking information about federal student loan programs and alternatives.

“When everybody focuses on buying higher education services, they need to focus on what a serious undertaking that is, like you are buying your first house,” Hill said.

“Be careful in working with financial-aid officers and various colleges and community colleges and make sure you can afford to pay back the loan if you are doing it on a limited income,” Hill said.

He said when the federal government took over student loans, they skyrocketed to more than $1 trillion, exceeding all outstanding credit card debt.

“There are a lot of programs out there where students can have their student loans repaid if they perform community service or go to grad school in certain fields. Many companies repay those loans. I think your state legislators should adequately fund higher education and not put all the burden on students,” Hill said.

“There’s too much emphasis on four-year education,” Cotton said. More students should consider technical college, he said.

The solution, Cotton suggested, was a growing economy.

A woman in the audience asked the senator, “I wonder if you’re going to be as forceful about the Russian hacking situation with Donald Trump as you were with the Benghazi thing.”

Cotton said investigations in both chambers should follow wherever the intelligence leads. “This is the most sensitive thing I’ve seen.”

One man rose to say he was in favor of everything Trump has done.

Another man prefaced his question by stating that Cotton was “bought and paid for” by the right-wing Koch brothers.

At a short press conference that preceded the town hall, Cotton said he favored getting on with the execution of eight death-row inmates scheduled to die by lethal injection within days. Currently there are temporary injunctions.

“They’re brutal murders,” Cotton said. “I hope the government can proceed with the sentences. Clearly they are constitutional and appropriate.”

Regarding the missile attack on a Syrian airfield following a chemical gas attack blamed on dictator Bashar al-Assad, Cotton said, “I think (Trump) did the right thing. We’ll employ our power to protect our interest. There’s no further road to kick the can down,” he said.