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Education, taxes focus of Arkansas gubernatorial debate

(From left) Republican Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Democrat Chris Jones and Libertarian Ricky Dale Harrington Jr. meet in a debate for candidates for governor Friday hosted by Arkansas PBS.
Arkansas PBS
(From left) Republican Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Democrat Chris Jones and Libertarian Ricky Dale Harrington Jr. met Friday in a debate for candidates in the race for governor hosted by Arkansas PBS.

The three candidates for governor of Arkansas faced off publicly Friday in the final day of a series of political debates hosted by Arkansas PBS.

It was the first debate in which Republican Sarah Huckabee Sanders faced her rivals, Libertarian Ricky Dale Harrington Jr. and Democrat Chris Jones. Sanders has not agreed to participate in any other debate before Election Day.

Taxes and education

Sanders, a former White House Press Secretary and daughter of former Gov. Mike Huckabee, spent much of the debate focusing on education. As governor, Sanders said she would ensure parents would be able to choose alternatives to failing public schools.

“Right now 54% of Arkansas’ budget is spent on education, yet the results we are getting are simply unacceptable. We have to do more with the money that we are already investing in our state,” Sanders said. “If we are putting this much money into the system and our results are actually getting worse as we put more money in, that is not a standard by which I think we can operate.”

She also outlined parts of her education policy proposal, called Arkansas LEARNS, an acronym for literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking, and school safety.

Jones, the former director of the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, criticized Sanders’ proposal to gradually phase out the state’s income tax arguing it would be disastrous for public school funding.

“You cannot eliminate 55% of the state revenue and then not cut something, unless you end up like Texas where property taxes go through the roof. So what are we saying to our farmers? Or you end up like Florida where sales taxes go through the roof… or you end up like Kansas, where the educational system collapses,” Jones said.

Jones also emphasized his plan to boost pre-school education, job growth and access to broadband internet in Arkansas. Harrington, a former prison chaplain, said he would seek to reform more regressive taxes like the state sales tax.

“It also is a double tax on people’s income. First we have the income tax, now whenever I go try to spend money on goods, for food, and for my family, I have to deal with that tax,” Harrington said. He also called the state’s one-eighth cent grocery tax “immoral.”

Trans healthcare

When asked about the state’s ban on gender-affirming care for trans minors, Sanders said she believes the law fulfills the government’s mandate to protect citizens from harm.

“Kids are not capable of making life-altering decisions like that. There’s a reason we have laws in place that protect kids from driving before the age of 16, voting before the age of 18," Sanders said, "because they are not capable of making adult decisions at that age.”

Sanders said she would also protect Arkansans from radical policies coming from the federal government. Jones, a minister and MIT-educated nuclear engineer, said the state’s transgender treatment ban takes away parents’ rights to help their children.

“We use issues like transgender care and healthcare as divisive, political punching bags. There’s a child at the end of that conversation, there’s a family at the end of that conversation,” Jones said. “As a scientist and as a minister… I would listen to what the science says and make sure that we are allowing parents and families to make the key decisions that they need.”

Harrington agreed, saying the ban is a prime example of government overreach.

“We live in a free society. People have the right to self-determination. People have the right to live their life the way that they want to as long as it’s not doing harm to anybody else,” Harrington said. “Our legislature has continued to pass laws that are getting struck down as unconstitutional regulating people’s personal choices and their behaviors.”


Moderators questioned the three candidates about their lack of experience in elected office. Sanders pointed to her term in the Trump administration as proof of her leadership capability.

“Anybody can talk about specific policies and the things that they want to do, but the real test of a leader is when they’re challenged with things they never see coming,” Sanders said. “I’ve been tested at the highest level of government, under the most intense criticism you can possibly imagine and never once backing down from who I am or what I believe.”

Jones said Arkansas has a history of electing pragmatic governors, and that his compassion and experience in the private sector would serve him well in the state’s highest office.

“I am the only candidate who has run multiple multi-million dollar organizations. One has to know how to set budgets, how to manage individuals, how to set a vision and then how to set a plan to realize that vision,” Jones said. “What Arkansas needs right now… is not only someone who has the plans, but someone who knows how to execute those plans and has done it before.”

Harrington said he has dedicated his life to public service as a Christian missionary and former corrections worker, saying he’s campaigning on a message of bringing peace to Arkansas.

Freedom of the press

When asked about the level of access members of the media would have to his administration as governor, Jones promised to be transparent.

“A foundation of openness is critical to the functioning of our democracy, and the more we have leaders who are unwilling to show up and answer the tough questions in front of crowds that don’t agree with them and with media that don’t agree with them, the further we’ll get away from the strength of our democracy,” Jones said.

Jones also said he’s heard from Arkansans they’re frustrated with a perceived lack of transparency and clear policy goals from the Sanders campaign. Sanders implied journalists often misrepresent the facts, saying she favors a more direct approach to interacting with constituents.

“Freedom of the press is incredibly important, but with freedom of the press also comes a great deal of responsibility. And when they don’t live up to their end of the bargain, it forces some of us to go outside of the box,” Sanders said. “I know more than anybody that sometimes you have to go directly to the people and cut out the middleman and the bias in which they are going to present your message.”

Harrington joked that, as governor, he would live-stream his daily routines for all to see.

Recent polling shows Democratic candidate Jones within ten points of Sanders’ lead in Republican-led Arkansas. If elected, either Harrington or Jones would be the state’s first Black governor, while Sanders would be the first woman to lead the state.

Incumbent Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson is term-limited from running for office again, and has said he is considering a bid for president. Early voting begins on Monday in Arkansas, with Election Day on Nov. 8.

Daniel Breen is News Director of Little Rock Public Radio.