While the special election for the District 21 state Senate seat came about because of a lapse in ethics, that seems to be a non-issue in the campaign, which will wrap up next Tuesday. The district covers the western half of Craighead County, including Jonesboro.
The last-standing candidates from a vigorous primary are Republican John Cooper of Bono and Democrat Steve Rockwell of Jonesboro. Rockwell, making his first run at public office, emerged on top of a four-man primary. Cooper, who ran unsuccessfully for the state House of Representatives in 2012, defeated two others. Both had tight runoff races.
The man they seek to replace, Paul Bookout of Jonesboro, wasn’t mentioned during a forum Friday sponsored by the Northeast Arkansas Political Animals Club. Bookout resigned last summer after being fined $8,000 by the Arkansas Ethics Commission for violating campaign finance laws.
Instead, what Cooper and Rockwell had obviously prepared for, and what they were asked mostly about, was the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
The District 21 seat could be important in future funding of the "private option," a compromise method to expand Medicaid in Arkansas that was engineered by Gov. Mike Beebe and leaders of the Republican-majority Legislature. A new appropriation will be needed this year, again requiring a three-fourths majority of each house. Bookout was one of 28 senators approving last year’s appropriation, one more than necessary.
Cooper pledges to "stop Obamacare."
He won’t, of course, because the Affordable Care Act is the law nationally, albeit somewhat troubled in its implementation. Beebe said in an interview Sunday night at Mobile, Ala., that "if these guys want to repeal Obamacare, they need to run for Congress." Arkansas can’t get rid of the health-care exchange but could only turn it over to the federal government to run.
The Political Animals forum, like most such programs, wasn’t a debate. Each candidate was allowed short opening and closing statements, and the floor was opened to questions from the audience. Each candidate was allowed a two-minute answer, and then the candidate who responded first got 30 seconds more for rebuttal.
If you clear your throat, cough or sneeze during the rebuttal, you’ve lost a third of your time.
That’s not conducive to handling complicated issues like health care, and the candidates instead stuck with scripted catch phrases to underline their positions. For Cooper it was "stopping Obamacare;" for Rockwell it was emphasizing his business experience. Such a format, which also included a prohibition against follow-up questions, can’t examine issues thoroughly.
For example, the last question came from Bobby Hogue, a longtime state legislator, who asked if either man had talked with the administrators of the two Jonesboro hospitals about the private option issue. Neither answered the question specifically.
As moderator, L.J. Bryant was trying to move on to the closings, a frustrated Hogue interjected, "Could I get an answer to my question?"
Given extra time, Rockwell said he had discussed the issue with Chris Barber, president and chief executive officer of St. Bernards Healthcare, but did not mention the administrator of NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital.
Cooper would only say that he had talked with "people at St. Bernards" and "CEOs from other areas" but not at NEA Baptist.
How can anyone speak authoritatively on an issue as important as the central piece of Arkansas’ response to the ACA without at least conferring with the leaders of the two largest hospitals in the region?
Beebe has talked with both administrators, and he said Sunday they are "fired up" about the possibility of losing the private option.
He said that the two Jonesboro hospitals will lose a combined $8 million a year if that happens."I don’t know how that translates into lost jobs," he said, "but that’s a big hit."
Furthermore, he said higher education, including the two biggest universities, Arkansas State and Arkansas, will lose millions of dollars in appropriations each year. The reason, he explained, is that the Legislature "paid for" tax cuts it passed by funding Medicaid with federal dollars.
"The Legislature won’t undo the tax cuts," he said, "but Medicaid has to be funded, so the money will have to come from somewhere else." Higher education often gets hit at such times.
The governor stressed that the Arkansas Hospital Association has taken a strong stand for the private option because of its projections about the impact on member facilities. Generally, hospitals have favored the ACA because they’ve had to shoulder a heavy burden of the costs for treating the uninsured.
Rockwell said repeatedly that the private option will save 1,000 lives a year and that ending it would place a $38 million burden on small businesses in Arkansas. Cooper brushed that aside, saying every statistic has a counter-statistic but not offering one.
Asked what he would do about the 70,000 Arkansas citizens already enrolled in the private option, with many more to come, Cooper insisted that more people will lose their health insurance under Obamacare. He also cited the case of a Jonesboro woman he said had been denied access to cancer treatment because of the new law and added that he knew of other cases where people bought insurance policies, then had to pay full charges at emergency rooms.
That’s not a good substitute for research in your own district.
Roy Ockert, editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun, can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.