LITTLE ROCK — Republican Asa Hutchinson and Democrat Mike Ross traded barbs Friday in a forum for the major-party gubernatorial candidates, with Hutchinson accusing Ross of lacking credibility and Ross accusing Hutchinson of being dishonest.
The candidates, both former congressmen, were friendly early in the forum sponsored by the Association of Arkansas Counties, but less so when they got to the subjects of taxes and attack ads.
Both candidates have proposed phasing in cuts to the state income tax. Ross, who has said he will cut taxes only as as growth in state revenue allows, chided Hutchinson for pledging to begin cutting the income tax in his first year in office.
"He says he’s going to cut $100 million in taxes in year one and then he’ll worry about balancing the budget and funding education and Medicaid and public safety," Ross said. "I think Congressman Hutchinson spent too much time as a powerful lobbyist in Washington, D.C., and as a voter in Virginia. I don’t think he understands: This is not Washington, this is Arkansas. Money doesn’t grow on trees. We don’t print money. We don’t deficit spend here."
Hutchinson responded, "You know, the fact is, Mike, you have very little credibility about talking about a balanced budget. … When I left Congress, we had a balanced budget. When you left Congress, we had a $1 trillion deficit."
Hutchinson represented Arkansas’ 3rd District in Congress from 1997 to 2001. Ross represented the 4th District from 2001 to 2013.
The candidates also argued over Gov. Mike Beebe’s opinions of their tax plans. Hutchinson said Beebe has called his plan "prudent."
Ross said Beebe endorsed his plan, not Hutchinson’s, and said that "Gov. Beebe did not call Asa’s tax plan prudent. He said it was prudent to cut taxes for working families."
In November, Beebe said of Hutchinson’s tax plan, "The phase-out is obviously a much more responsible position than just whacking everything all at once without regard to the income. So to be fair, that’s a prudent approach."
Hutchinson’s campaign has sought throughout the race to link Ross with President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Ross said Friday that the National Journal called him one of the most independent members of Congress each year he was there, the National Rifle Association gave him an A-plus rating every year he was there, and he gave the nominating speech for a Pelosi opponent.
"I think you deserve to know the truth, and I think it says a lot about candidates when they misrepresent the facts, distort the truth and lie about the other’s record," he said. "If the candidate won’t shoot you straight on a TV ad, can you really trust them to lead the state?"
Hutchinson told reporters later that Ross’ claims of independence have been undercut by his own words.
"He has said that he is running to save the Democratic Party, and that is about as partisan of a statement as you can make," Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson also said the forum had been positive until Ross attacked him.
"That’s understandable when you’re running from behind in a race," he said.
Ross told reporters the race is "tied" and said of Hutchinson, "It sounds like he’s getting desperate and scared to me."
Both candidates said during the forum they support increasing state turnback funds to counties and the reimbursement that county jails receive for housing state prisoners, although neither named a specific amount he would seek.
Ross pledged to increase access to pre-kindergarten education and expand vocational education.
"I’ve said I want to be the education governor, because that’s how you create jobs," he said.
Hutchinson pledged to improve vocational education and have computer science classes taught in every Arkansas high school.
"If you want a jobs governor that will help create jobs and grow our economy, then I am your person," he said.
Hutchinson and Ross will face Green party candidate Joshua Drake and Libertarian Party candidate Frank Gilbert in the Nov. 4 election.