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WATCH: Candidates For Arkansas Governor Debate Healthcare, Corruption

The three candidates for governor during a debate for AETN.

A long week of televised debates ended Friday (Oct. 12) with three gubernatorial candidates mostly sparring over the policies of Republican incumbent Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is running for a second term.

The election is Nov. 6, with early voting beginning Oct. 22.

Over the past week, candidates in eight races have participated in the Arkansas Educational Television Network’s (AETN) 2018 election debates, which were taped at the network’s studios in Conway, televised throughout the week and made available online.

Hutchinson was joined in the gubernatorial debate by Democratic candidate Jared Henderson and Libertarian Mark West. Henderson kicked off the debate by telling the AETN studio audience that he had “competing visions” with his gubernatorial opponents, deciding to run for governor because he wanted to expand opportunities for all Arkansans.

“I want every child and every family to have the same fair shot that mine had, but we have a long way to go,” said Henderson. ”I am not running because I blame Gov. Hutchinson for this, but because I want to do something about it.”

After Henderson’s comments, Hutchinson countered that as governor over the past four years, he has passed the test of “did you do what you say you were going to do and did you keep your promises.” Hutchinson highlighted his “pro-jobs”agenda for the past three-and-a-half years, which included two rounds of tax cuts for the state’s lower- and middle-income taxpayers, a high school computer coding initiative and efforts to grow the state’s labor pool by more than 70,000 workers.

The Republican incumbent boasted that his administration’s efforts have led to a strong Arkansas economy with more than 65,000 Arkansans moving out of poverty into a job marketplace that touched a near all-time low jobless rate of 3.6% earlier this summer. By those standards, Hutchinson said he has kept his promises and is asking Arkansas voters for a second term to continue building on those results.

“I am running for re-election. Hold me accountable for what I promised and what we did. And if you look at the future, that’s what I am excited about because in the future we are going to continue to create jobs, build a transportation system that is second to none here in Arkansas, improve teacher pay and put more money in their pockets, and we’re going to transform government.”

West followed Henderson’s and Hutchinson’s comments by saying that his opponents had more “polished and political” views of governing. He then offered that his working class and small-town background gives him a better perspective of how middle-class Arkansans are living.

“I’m not D.C., I’m not Ivy League, I’m just a Main Street Arkansas guy,” said West. “I’ve spent my entire adult life working two jobs just trying to make ends meet. I work paycheck to paycheck and sometimes that paycheck doesn’t go as far as the bill. I understand that struggle.”

West added that his main goal as governor would be to limit the role government has in Arkansans’ everyday lives so the entire state can prosper.

Following their opening statements, the three gubernatorial candidates jumped into the AETN debate with a spirited discussion on the Hutchinson administration’s decision to embrace a work requirement for the state’s Medicaid expansion program, known as Arkansas Works. Henderson called Hutchinson’s decision to scale-back healthcare coverage for some Medicaid users a “bad policy,” saying it would lead to more emergency room visits, high insurance costs and put the state’s rural hospitals at risk. West said Medicaid and other government-mandated programs rob local communities of the opportunity to help the less fortunate through charity.

Hutchinson defended his stance to support a work rule for Medicaid recipients, saying the state needs to balance compassion with responsibility. He added that most able-bodied Arkansans who receive healthcare from the state are now moving into the job marketplace or receiving workforce training for better jobs.

The next candidate question led the gubernatorial candidates into another back-and-forth concerning ongoing state and federal investigations into a widespread bribery and corruption scandal at the State Capitol. Hutchinson told the AETN audience and TV viewers that proper reform measures are being taken to strengthen ethics rules and accountability in state government, but West and Henderson piled on that the Republican incumbent needed to show better leadership to address corruption and cronyism in state government.

The remainder of the 40-minute debate focused on Hutchinson’s recently announced government transformation plan to downsize the number of cabinet-level state agencies from 42 to 15, the expansion of charter schools in Arkansas, criminal justice and prison reform, and the impact of President Donald Trump’s trade tariffs on the state’s economy.

In addition to the candidate debates this week, AETN is featuring a program on the proposed initiatives that are expected to be on the Nov. 6 ballot once all court challenges are decided. On Thursday, the Arkansas Supreme Court shot down a challenge to Issue 4, which would allow casino operations at Oaklawn and Southland and Pope County and Jefferson County if approved by voters. The high court also backed a voter ID law approved by the Legislature in 2017.