CONWAY -- Republican gubernatorial candidate Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Friday that she would have signed into law a bill that bans gender-affirming care for transgender children, but Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Jones and Libertarian candidate Ricky Dale Harrington Jr. said they would have vetoed the measure like Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson did.
During the gubernatorial debate at Arkansas PBS' studio, Jones questioned whether Sanders' aim of phasing out the state income tax would lead to increased property taxes, increased sales taxes or a collapsed education system in Arkansas. Sanders countered that she would responsibly phase out the state income tax and not rush to do it. The event was the first time in the campaign when all three candidates have squared off in a debate.
The candidates also debated whether there is too much focus on national politics in the governor's race, and Sanders defended not granting interviews at times to media outlets in Arkansas.
In the Nov. 8 general election, Sanders, Jones and Harrington are vying to succeed Hutchinson as governor.
Hutchinson has served as governor since 2015 and is barred from seeking reelection under the state's term limits amendment. He has endorsed Sanders, who is the daughter of former Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee.
In April 2021, the Republican-dominated Legislature handily overrode Hutchinson's veto of the bill that would prohibit gender-affirming care for transgender children. Hutchinson has said he vetoed the law because it was "overbroad and extreme, and does not grandfather in those young people who are currently under hormone treatment."
In July 2021, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction blocking Act 626 of 2021 -- the Save Adolescents from Experimentation Act -- from being enforced while the matter is in court, after the law was challenged in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ruling was upheld by a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in August. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has appealed that ruling, asking for a hearing before the full 8th Circuit.
Testimony started this week in a trial in federal court in Little Rock as four teens and their families hope to permanently strike down the law.
Act 626 of 2021, sponsored by Rep. Robin Lundstrom, R-Springdale, would prohibit doctors from providing or referring transgender young people care related to gender dysphoria.
The lawsuit by the ACLU and ACLU of Arkansas contends the law violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment and free speech protections under the First Amendment.
Asked about Hutchinson's veto of the bill that became Act 626, Sanders said Friday that "I would have supported this legislation and I would have signed it because we have to do a better job of protecting the kids in this state and, frankly, across the country.
"Kids are not capable of making life-altering decisions like that," she said.
"There is a reason we have laws in place that protect kids from driving before the age of 16, voting before the age of 18, before we allow them to make decisions about smoking and drinking and wearing a seat belt, because they are not capable of making adult decisions at that age," Sanders said.
Jones said he would have vetoed the bill that became Act 626 of 2021 and make sure that "we don't strip away those powers and rights from parents."
"I trust parents, and I trust parents to listen to their physician and make the best decision that they can for their children," he said. "It is not an easy, straightforward issue. It is complex and complicated, and we have to trust parents."
Jones said "we use issues like transgender care and heath care as divisive political punching bags."
He said he would listen to what the science says and make sure to allow parents and families to make the key decisions that need to be made.
Harrington said he would have vetoed the bill that became Act 626 of 2021 and the bill shouldn't have cleared a legislative committee, he said. He said doctors, priests and others can help parents make decisions on these matters.
"It is their decision to make, not a politician's," Harrington said.
Asked whether there is too much focus on national politics at the expense of Arkansas issues in the gubernatorial race, Harrington said the hyper-partisanship in Washington, D.C., is becoming very, very volatile.
"We have got to find a way to get away from the violence, the anger and the hatred that is so prevalent in our country, and we need to start treating one another as human beings that have the right to self-determination," he said.
"We need to get back down to these basics of good governance," said Harrington, of Pine Bluff, who is a pastor and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2020.
Sanders, a former White House press secretary for Republican President Donald Trump, said one can't ignore the failure of Democratic President Joe Biden's administration with out-of-control crime ravaging cities, the crisis taking place at the southern border allowing drugs to pour into communities, and record-breaking inflation that is hurting families across Arkansas.
"However, the reason I am running for governor is because I think the places where we can make the biggest difference and transform our state and impact and empower families is at the state level," Sanders said.
She said she wants to focus on issues such as education and making sure that every child in Arkansas has access to a quality education and putting them on a pathway to prosperity, building a skilled qualified workforce, and making sure communities are safe.
Sanders, of Little Rock, said her education plan is called Arkansas LEARNS, which prioritizes literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking, and school safety.
Jones, a former executive director of the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, said "this [campaign] always has been about Arkansas" and he has traveled to all 75 counties and heard from Arkansans.
"What they are saying is that they really want us to get back to bread-and-butter issues that matter," he said. "That's why our agenda is pretty straightforward. It's about spreading PB&J across the state. We need preschool, broadband and jobs across the entire state, and as governor that's certainly what I would focus on."
Jones, of Little Rock, said the state needs to focus on education and he wants all Arkansans to have opportunities, including starting out of the blocks with access to preschool and going throughout the entire education pipeline. He said he also wants to focus on economic development in rural areas that have been forgotten and left out.
Sanders said she wants to focus on phasing out the state's income tax in order for the state to be competitive with surrounding states, including Tennessee and Texas, that don't have an income tax.
She said she wants to phase out the state income responsibly and do that by growing the state's economy and cutting the waste, fraud and abuse in state government spending.
"We also have to look for modernization and efficiencies within government," Sanders said.
Other states have saved $40 million to $50 million through technology to pass onto taxpayers and Arkansas should pursue the potential savings, she said.
Sanders said the state spends about 54% of the state's budget on public schools and colleges and universities, but the results are unacceptable.
"We have to do more with the money that we are already investing in our state," she said. "We have a number of programs that are not meeting the most basic standard."
Jones noted that Sanders has talked about "results not matching up" and "waste, fraud and abuse."
"Well, Mrs. Sanders' party has been in power for the last eight years, so I think we have to look there to see, and Einstein said that you can't do the same thing over and over again and expect different results, so we have to do something different," he said.
Jones said he is for cutting taxes, "but the math has to add up."
"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 ... or you end up like Florida, where sales tax goes through the roof," he said. "So what are we saying to one in four kids who go to bed hungry and they are trying to figure out how to pay for their food? Or you end up like Kansas, where the education system collapses."
"We can cut taxes and we can spread PB&J across the state, which is preschool, broadband and jobs," Jones said. "There are resources there that we can leverage. We have to do it in a measured, responsible way."
Harrington said the state must be smart about spending taxpayers' dollars and where it cuts taxes.
Sanders emphasized she wants to phase out the state's income tax responsibly.
"That doesn't mean rushing out and doing it," she said. "One of the best ways we can do this is by growing our own economy."
Sanders said the state has an incredible abundance of natural resources and the state has untapped outdoor economy that the state has barely scratched the surface of.
"There is so much that can be done to grow our own economy here at home and then pass that savings on to the taxpayer," he said.
Jones said the state is hindered from unleashing its full potential with areas of the state that lack access to high-speed internet that allows these areas to tap into the broader economy, and must focus on providing that infrastructure to allow Arkansans to thrive.
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.
In response to a question about how much access each candidate would provide to the news media as governor, Jones said he has had conversations with the news media from the beginning of his campaign and he will always be open to conversations with the media.
"We have been down to south Arkansas and I have heard stories of folks who are frustrated because they can't hear from my opponent Sarah Sanders, and they want to know how she is going to implement the things she is talking about and they want to ask tough questions," he said.
Jones said he will transparent and open as governor.
Harrington said he has quipped about livestreaming his days as governor if he is elected.
"If we want to have a free and safe society, we have got to be forthright," he said. "We have to be truthful with one another. We have to tell it like it is, but also be gentle with one another whenever we are telling it like is."
Sanders said the freedom of the press is incredibly important, but there is a great deal of responsibility that comes with that freedom.
"When they don't live up to their end of the bargain, it forces some of us to go outside of the box, which I have done every single day for the last two years," she said. "In fact, I would be willing to venture that I have actually met with more Arkansans directly face-to-face than all the other candidates running for this office both in the primary and general combined.
"I know more than anybody that sometimes you have to go directly to the people and cut out the middle man and the bias in which they are going to present your message, and it's clearly working and resonating," Sanders said. "People are hungry for a leader who is going to build Arkansas up."
Jones said, "it sounded like a crowd-size comment, to me."
He said "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, then the further we will get away from the strength of our democracy."
Sanders said she has engaged with the press during her campaign and she will continue to do so, but more importantly she will never stop directly engaging with the people of Arkansas.
After Friday's debate at Arkansas PBS, Harrington and Jones took questions from the media but Sanders opted against doing so.
Earlier this month, Sanders' campaign declined to make her available for an interview with a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for a profile on the governor's race, 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, and both Jones and Harrington responded to follow-up questions in writing.
In her recent written statement, Sanders declined to say why she was not available for an in-person interview. 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.