In their bids to succeed Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Chris Jones and Republican nominee Sarah Huckabee Sanders offer voters vastly different agendas and experience to choose from in the Nov. 8 general election.
Jones, of Little Rock, Sanders, of Little Rock, and Libertarian candidate Ricky Dale Harrington Jr., of Pine Bluff, are vying for a four-year term as governor. Early voting starts Oct. 24.
Hutchinson, a Republican, has served as governor since 2015 and is barred from seeking reelection under the state's term limits amendment, and his successor will be sworn in Jan. 10, 2023. The governor's salary is currently $158,739 a year.
Jones, a former executive director of the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, said voters should cast their ballots for him based on his executive experience in higher education and in the nonprofit sector, "my compassion and empathy for others," and his vision and ability to bring people together to solve challenges.
"It also is really a choice between chaos and community," he said in an interview. "She [Sanders] is offering some of the same division and a lack of actual plans."
Jones has pitched what he has called his PB&J agenda of expanding preschool and broadband access and creating more jobs, and proposed a plan to substantially increase teachers' salaries, while Sanders has pledged to begin phasing out the state's income tax, proposed a plan that she said would make for a safer and stronger Arkansas, and repeatedly criticized Democratic President Joe Biden.
She is a former White House press secretary for Republican President Donald Trump, who lost to Biden in 2020, and a consultant and author. She also is the daughter of former Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee, who was the state's chief executive from July 1996-2007.
Sanders said in a written statement that voters should vote for her because "Arkansans want a fighter who will push back against the failed radical left policies coming from Washington, but also a leader who will defend our freedom and create opportunity for all Arkansans.
"As governor, I will lower taxes, foster an environment for Arkansas' businesses to grow, champion good schools while empowering parents, and support law enforcement," Sanders said. "Together, we are going to take Arkansas to the top and make this state one of the best places to live, work, and raise a family."
Harrington, a pastor who lost a bid for the U.S. Senate in 2020, said in an interview that voters should vote for him because he's interested in the well-being of people and "our democratic republic."
"I'm a pragmatic person, and we need to get back to the nuts and bolts of effective governance," he said.
"I want to get more than 3% [of the votes cast for governor] honestly because we are trying to build a viable Libertarian Party here in the state of Arkansas," Harrington said.
If elected governor, Jones or Harrington would be the first Black person elected to the post in Arkansas.
If elected governor, Sanders would be the first woman elected to the position in Arkansas.
If elected governor, Sanders also would be the first daughter of a former governor elected to fill the position formerly held by her father in the United States, said Chelsea Hill, data services manager for the Center for American Women and Politics, which is part of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University -- New Brunswick.
Sanders’ campaign declined to make her available last week for an interview with a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for this story, so the paper submitted written questions to her campaign and her campaign provided a written response from her. Last month, the newspaper interviewed Jones and Harrington separately at a local cafe near the state Capitol. Both Jones and Harrington responded to follow-up questions in writing.
In her written statement, Sanders declined to say why she was not available for an in-person interview last week. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette interviewed her in person prior to the May 24 primary election for a story before she defeated podcaster Doc Washburn for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.
Sanders' campaign began what it has described as a $3.5 million paid media campaign with its first statewide general election television ad Sept. 3. Through the end of August, Sanders reported a campaign balance of $6.4 million compared with Jones' $163,554.60 and Harrington's $7,165.90, according to their latest campaign finance reports on the secretary of state's website late Friday afternoon.
Jones has proposed what he has called his Teacher Pay Plus plan to support Hutchinson's initial proposal to raise the state's minimum teacher pay from $36,000 to $46,000 a year and pledged to raise the minimum teacher pay to $50,000 by the end of his first term as governor.
Under the plan, Jones also would provide a $4,200 raise to teachers making at least $46,000 a year and provide additional state investments to support rural teachers and deferred maintenance building needs.
Going into the current school year, base teacher salaries in Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee and Mississippi are all higher than in Arkansas, and Mississippi just increased its base salary to $41,500 along with a $5,000 raise for each teacher, State Department of Education Secretary Johnny Key has noted.
Jones said his plan would use $400 million of the state's general revenue surplus, with a sustainable long-term funding structure, and provide a clear path to sustained funding for local school districts.
If there is room in the state budget for bonuses that he proposed granting this year for teachers and classified staff in his original plan, he said he "absolutely" would propose granting them next year. The priority, however, is to enact sustainable growth in teachers' wages, he said.
In July, Hutchinson said he wouldn't put a teacher salary increase on the agenda for the special session that was held Aug. 9-11 to enact tax cuts. He cited the lack of support in the Republican-dominated Legislature for a teacher pay increase in the special session.
Earlier in the summer, he had initially proposed raising teacher salaries to a minimum of $46,000 and implementing at least a $4,000 salary increase, and then had trimmed that proposal to increase the minimum teacher salary to $42,000 a year and provide a $4,000 increase to every teacher in this school year.
At that time, Republican legislative leaders said they wanted to wait for the House and Senate education committees to complete their biennial education adequacy review this fall and consider raising teacher salaries in the 2023 regular session, which starts Jan. 9. So far, the education committees haven't reached a consensus on how much to recommend raising teacher salaries.
Asked about Jones' teacher pay plan and whether she supports merit pay for teachers, Sanders replied in her written statement, "Let me be clear; I support raising teacher pay.
"It's [a] critical part of recruiting and retaining good, hardworking teachers who want to see our kids prosper," she said. "We must have a whole of government approach to education, not just a one-off. I want to reward good teachers with smart incentives, and make sure they have the resources and training needed to be successful."
Harrington said he favors pay raises for teachers, but he doesn't want to grant larger raises to teachers than state employees such as correctional officers.
"They are all putting in the same hard work," he said.
OTHER EDUCATION ISSUES
Asked whether she supports the state paying the same amount to parents to help pay for private education and/or home schooling for their children as the state pays per student to school districts for educating students, Sanders replied, "I support empowering parents and families to make the best decisions for their child's education needs, and as governor I will do just that.
"No child should be trapped in a life of poverty because of where they live," she said.
Asked whether he supports the state paying the same amount to parents to help pay for private education and/or home schooling for their children as the state pays per student to school districts for educating students, Jones said "Taxpayers' dollars should go where there is transparency and accountability for every single dollar.
"The real question is how will my opponent pay for public education, law enforcement, and roads when she eliminates 55% of the state's revenue as she has proposed by eliminating income taxes," he said.
Harrington said he supports voucher programs for the state to help pay parents for their children to attend private schools, and the parents should get just as much money as the public school districts for educating students.
"I do favor the money following the student," he said.
Jones said he wants to make sure that all 3- and 4-year-olds in Arkansas have access to pre-kindergarten that is affordable and high-quality, but he doesn't have a particular price tag for doing so.
Sanders said she wants to improve childhood literacy, hold schools accountable and prepare students for the workplace.
In May 2021, Sanders tweeted her support for eventually getting rid of the state's income tax.
Sanders' tweet came shortly before then-GOP gubernatorial candidate and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge pledged her commitment to eliminate the income tax. Rutledge later said she would propose a constitutional amendment that would eliminate the income tax by 2030. In November 2021, Rutledge announced she would run for lieutenant governor instead of governor in 2022. Rutledge has said that her ballot proposal "is on hold."
For fiscal 2023, which ends June 30, 2023, the state Department of Finance and Administration projects the state will collect $3.9 billion in individual income taxes and $642 million in corporate income taxes out of $8.3 billion in total general revenue and pay out $486.4 million in individual income tax refunds and $71.9 million in corporate income tax refunds.
In fiscal 2023, the state's general revenue budget totals $6.02 billion, and the finance department in May projected a $914 million general revenue surplus before the Legislature enacted income tax cuts in the Aug. 9-11 special session that the finance department projects will reduce state general revenues by about $500 million in fiscal 2023.
But the state's general revenue surplus in fiscal 2023 could be larger than projected because the state's net general revenue collections during the first three months of the fiscal year have exceeded the state's forecast by $174.8 million.
Sanders has steered clear of prescribing a certain period for phasing out the income tax.
Sanders said that gradually and responsibly phasing out the state income tax requires a growing economy and making government more efficient and effective "so that we can provide the highest level of service at the lowest cost.
"I will push for light regulations, a robust workforce system that ensures we can provide the skilled workers that businesses need to grow, technology advancements so we can better serve Arkansans, and being fiscally responsible with taxpayer dollars," she said. "All of these things are achievable, and as the economy grows, we will return more dollars to the taxpayer."
Jones said he has no need or desire to increase taxes, and "I would love to see some tax cuts.
"I do not want to cut the income tax down to zero," he said.
Jones said, "When I look at our budget and I think about the surplus and I think about my opponent talking about eliminating 55 % of the state revenue, to me what comes to mind is what bills we are not paying."
He said he thinks about Diamond City in north Arkansas, which has a water and sewer system that is going to fail in the next five years and will run off into the Arkansas River when it fails, and he thinks about a man in Lewisville who only wants his roads to be fixed.
"These are unpaid bills that at some point the bill is going to come due. Certainly, I would support appropriate tax cuts that benefit as many Arkansans as possible," Jones said.
Jones said he wants critical items, including diapers, wipes, formula and women's menstrual products, to be exempt from the state's sales tax.
Harrington said he supports eliminating the state income tax at a measured rate within a 10-year period, and that he wants to fund "basic necessities" and he doesn't want to eliminate safety net programs.
On June 24, Rutledge certified Act 180 of 2019 to ban abortion except to save the life of the mother in a medical emergency, hours after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion across the country.
Jones said, "I was a supporter of Roe," and, "I think it provided reasonable exceptions."
He said he considers the exception to allow abortions to save the life of the mother in a medical emergency to be ambiguous and he would want the Legislature to change state law to allow abortions to save the life the life of the mother and in cases of rape or incest "as a first step."
"The idea that my 13-year-old daughter could be raped and forced to carry the baby is bad," Jones said. "Or the idea that I would have to make a decision on my wife's life, [or] somebody else makes the decision for me."
Sanders said, "I am pro-life, believe every life -- including mother and child -- has intrinsic value, and would not advocate for any new exceptions to Arkansas' pro-life law.
"Arkansas is the most pro-life state in the country, and I intend on keeping us there, and that means not just prioritizing life in the womb, but making sure every child growing up in Arkansas has access to a quality education and path to prosperity."
Harrington said he doesn't like abortion being used as a contraceptive, but "at the end of the day the decision should be between the parties involved ... as in the family, the woman and the physicians.
"Ultimately, I believe those decisions are personal decisions," he said.
Arkansas' Medicaid expansion program that provides health insurance to more than 300,000 low-income Arkansans was initially authorized in 2013 by the Republican-controlled Legislature and then-Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat.
The federal government pays for 90% of the cost of the program and the state covers the rest of the cost.
The Medicaid expansion program is optional for states, and Arkansas has obtained waivers for the program under the federal Affordable Care Act signed by President Obama in 2010.
It was initially called the private option before being called Arkansas Works and now ARHOME under Hutchinson. ARHOME stands for Arkansas Health and Opportunity for Me.
Sanders said the state's overall Medicaid program makes up nearly a third of the state's budget and "we can always look for ways to improve outcomes and reduce costs.
"I will work with the Legislature to resubmit a work requirement to the federal government so that we are encouraging people who can work to get a job and not be trapped in a lifetime of government dependency," she said.
A work requirement approved by the Trump administration for Arkansas' program resulted in more than 18,000 people losing coverage before it was struck down by a federal judge in 2019.
Jones said he supports the Medicaid expansion program and wants to make it accessible to as many Arkansans as possible.
Harrington said he benefited from the Medicaid expansion program when he returned from China in 2016 and "we did not have anything" and a year on the safety net program helped him get back on his feet, "so I am not going to trash it."
Jones and Harrington said they will vote for Issue 4, which is a proposed constitutional amendment that would legalize recreational marijuana in Arkansas, while Sanders said she will vote against the ballot measure.
Jones said, "We can free up law enforcement and prison resources to keep us safe from violent crimes and serious drugs like fentanyl, while also reuniting families and addressing inequities in our criminal justice system.
"As governor, I will work for a just and equitable cannabis industry in Arkansas and, then, expunge the records of those arrested for minor marijuana possession," he said.
"If voters legalize adult-use marijuana in November, which the majority of Arkansans are said to support, then we must immediately reunite families that were broken up by a conviction for an activity that would now be considered legal," Jones said. "If I serve as governor under current law, my preference is for a case-by-case review for possible pardons, a position I share with Gov. Hutchinson."
With medical marijuana being legal in the state, Harrington said it would be fair and just to expunge the records of people with simple marijuana possession charges.
Asked her stance on the decriminalization of minor marijuana possession charges, Sanders replied, "At a time when our country is experiencing record overdose deaths, I believe law enforcement should prioritize the prosecution of drug dealers, who are flooding our communities with heroin, fentanyl and meth and killing Arkansans."
Sanders has proposed a public safety plan that says the state "must be prepared to devote the necessary resources to increase prison capacity to allow for the retention of violent, repeat offenders and to reduce the backlog in our county jails."
As part of this plan, she proposed enacting what she described as smart, targeted Truth in Sentencing legislation aimed at ensuring violent repeat offenders are not allowed back into communities in Arkansas.
The proposed legislation would require that, if an inmate is out on parole and commits another crime, the criminal must go back and serve the remainder of the original sentence to be run consecutive to the new sentence, Sanders said.
Her plan also calls for increasing mental health programming for inmates requiring those services in prison, and supporting recruitment efforts of additional law enforcement officers across the state and tangible investment in training and additional resources, including overtime, and enacting a victim's bill of rights to ensure people victimized by crime have basic protections under the law.
Asked whether he supports expanding prisons, Jones said, "I think it is the wrong question.
"We need enough prison beds to address the needs of crime in different communities across the state," he said.
"The question really is are we providing pre-k for folks so they don't go to prison in the first place? Are we are providing economic development so they don't go to prison in the first place? Are we improving our re-entry programs to reduce the need for prison beds in the first place?"
Jones said his goal is to reduce the need for prison beds while meeting the need that is there, and that the state hasn't appropriately addressed the opioid addiction and mental health challenges and doing so would help address the needs for prison beds.
Harrington said he opposes expanding the state's prisons.
Asked for her position on the death penalty and whether she would allow for executions, Sanders said, "As governor, I will carry out the law on the books and always take a strong stand against violent crime."
Asked about his position on the death penalty and whether he would allow for executions, Jones said, "I am more of a Rockefeller governor on that.
"With a decision that is final in an error-prone environment, I get very cautious," he said. "It goes against the notion that everybody is redeemable. Do they need to be out on the streets? I am not saying that."
Harrington said he opposes the death penalty, and supports life in prison in lieu of the death penalty.
Candidates for governor
Residence: Little Rock
Occupation: Former executive director of the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub
Education: Bachelor’s degree in physics and math from Morehouse College; master’s degree in nuclear engineering, master’s degree in technology and policy, and a doctoral degree in urban studies and planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Public service experience: Former executive director of Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative; former mayor of Pine Bluff Youth Council; former board member at the National Center for Healthy Housing; former board member at the Museum of Discovery and at Arkansas PBS; former assistant dean for graduate education at MIT; and former high school algebra teacher at Media and Technology Charter School
Sarah Huckabee Sanders
Residence: Little Rock
Occupation: Consultant and author
Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science and mass communications from Ouachita Baptist University
Public service experience: White House press secretary 2017-2019; U.S. Department of Education 2004-2006; Fulbright Board, 2019 – present
Ricky Dale Harrington
Residence: Pine Bluff
Occupation: Pastor at Mount Beulah Christian Church in Pine Bluff
Education: Bachelor’s degree in ministry from Harding University
Public service experience: Missionary in Scotland 2007-2008 and China 2014-2016; Arkansas Department of Correction prison chaplain, 2016-2018; treatment coordinator at Cummins Unit, 2018-April 2020