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Voter ID an issue in state Senate District 20 race

by Michael R. Wickline | September 28, 2014 at 3:00 a.m.

In his rematch with state Sen. Robert Thompson, D-Paragould, Corning Republican Blake Johnson is panning Thompson for voting against voter-ID legislation and supporting Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe's vetoes of two anti-abortion measures.

Thompson is defending his voting record and saying he wants to continue his work helping to improve highways and education to create more jobs in Senate District 20.

Johnson, 42, and Thompson, 43, are vying for a four-year Senate term.

The district includes Clay, Greene and Lawrence counties and parts of Craighead and Randolph counties.

Two years ago, Thompson beat Johnson by 447 votes -- 13,616 to 13,169.

Johnson, who served on the Corning City Council from 2005-12, said voters should elect him because he's conservative on economic and social issues.

Thompson, an attorney, has been in the Senate since 2007. He served in the state House of Representatives from 2005-07.

He said voters should re-elect him so he can continue working to promote economic development, education and transportation.

Johnson said he wants to cut the state's income tax to become more competitive with surrounding states and create more jobs. He said he supports Republican gubernatorial nominee Asa Hutchinson's plan to cut certain state income tax rates by $100 million in fiscal 2016.

He said he also wants to limit state government spending growth to either the state's population growth or growth in the state's gross domestic product.

A map showing the location of Senate District 20.

With Black River Technical College's campuses in Pocahontas and Paragould and an Arkansas State University campus in Paragould in his district, Thompson said he wants to provide more support for higher education -- particularly the two-year and technical colleges. Black River Technical College's technical programs have fostered economic growth in the region, he said.

He said he'll advocate for making all of U.S. 67 four lanes from Walnut Ridge to the Missouri line. He said he'll also push for widening Arkansas 49 from Paragould to Piggott from two lanes to four lanes.

Thompson said he agrees with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mike Ross and Hutchinson in that "something should be done in regards to the state income tax code." Ross has proposed revamping those taxes at an estimated cost of $575 million.

Thompson said he wants any state income tax cuts to be phased in the same way that the state's sales tax on groceries has been done over several years so the state's other needs, such as paying for public schools and prisons, are also met.

Johnson criticized Thompson for opposing legislation last year requiring voters to present photo identification to vote.

Casting a ballot "is an important transaction, more important than a retail transaction" where such identification is already required, Johnson said.

Thompson said some of the problems with the voter-ID law were borne out in the May primary election, when several hundred people had their ballots disqualified even though "we had no reason to believe [they] were not voters."

In May, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox ruled that the Legislature, which overrode a gubernatorial veto to enact the voter-ID law, failed to approve the law with the required two-thirds majority to add it to the state's constitution. Fox found Act 595 of 2013 to be unlawful because of the timing of when voters must show identification -- directly at the moment their votes are cast.

The state's attorney general has appealed Fox's ruling to the state Supreme Court.

Johnson said Thompson also "didn't stand against the governor's veto on pro-life issues."

Johnson said he would have voted to override Beebe's veto of bills, one prohibiting most abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy and another banning most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, because "I believe in the protection of the unborn ... [and] as a society you have to protect the next generation."

Thompson said he's personally opposed to abortion, and he's voted for numerous anti-abortion measures.

While he voted for bills to ban most abortions after 12 weeks and 20 weeks of pregnancy, he said he didn't vote to override Beebe's vetoes of the measures "because I recognize they were not likely to become law because of court decisions, and so that is why I didn't vote to override the veto."

In March, a federal judge nullified part of the 12-week ban law, Act 301 of 2013, by declaring it "clearly unconstitutional." The state's attorney general has appealed the judge's ruling. Act 171 of 2013, the 20-week ban, is still state law.

Johnson said he would have voted against the private option, "which is Obamacare in Arkansas," and that the program is more expensive than expected.

Opponents of the private option often call it "Obamacare" because funding was made possible by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, which President Barack Obama championed. Supporters maintain that it's not "Obamacare" because the private option was created by Arkansans and because the state obtained waivers from the federal government to offer it.

The expansion of the Medicaid program, approved by the Legislature last year, extends coverage to adults with incomes of up to 138 percent of the poverty level -- $16,105 for an individual or $32,913 for a family of four. More than 170,000 Arkansans have enrolled in private health insurance through the program.

The state will be required to start paying 5 percent of the program's cost starting in fiscal 2017, gradually increasing to 10 percent of the cost in fiscal 2020.

Johnson said he doesn't know whether he would vote to eliminate the program because "I don't know if that's even an option" under the state's agreement with the federal government.

"I wouldn't feel comfortable dumping people off the program, but something must be done to limit our exposure or it's going to break the state budget [in the future]," Johnson said.

Thompson, who voted for the private option in 2013 and again this year, said he intends to support reauthorizing the private option during the 2015 legislative session.

He said hospital officials in Walnut Ridge, Piggott, Pocahontas and Paragould told him that the program helps eliminate the need for a lot of uncompensated care provided because more patients are insured.

"If the private option is taken away, the hospitals in my district would have a great deal of hardship," he said, adding that the private option has helped improve health care there.

Metro on 09/28/2014

Print Headline: Voter ID an issue in state Senate District 20 race


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