Despite rainy weather, dozens of residents packed the Conway Legislative Town Hall hosted by the University of Central Arkansas and Sen. Jason Rapert at UCA Downtown.
Joining Rapert to discuss such topics as health care, roads, "dark money" in judicial elections and more were Reps. Stephen Meeks, David Meeks, Rick Beck and Douglas House.
UCA Chief of Staff Kelley Erstine moderated the event. Members of the audience gave Erstine cards with questions related to the announced topics and the legislators chose which questions to weigh in on during the event.
Discussing Arkansas Works, the private option passed in 2013 that uses federal Medicaid money to purchase private insurance for people with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line, David Meeks said it’s important "to look at the big picture" because "there are other solutions to health care but the federal government" won’t pass them.
Rapert said Arkansas Works was "the most contentious issue I was ever involved in" and the hardest vote — in favor of the private option — he ever cast.
"The reality of campaigning and the reality of governing are two different things," he said. "The things we want to change, we can’t change at this level."
Rapert said that at this point, the state is at a "prove it or lose it" stage, reading a letter he received from a local doctor complaining that under the plan, Medicaid paid more than $4,000 for around $1,100 worth of medication.
House said that the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, "took $2.2 billion away from Arkansas hospitals" and he voted to do whatever it took "to keep the hospitals open."
Stephen Meeks said even though he doesn’t support the private option, "it does have some good in it."
Beck pointed out that federal block grants were "a great thing to come out of this" legislation.
"We had a committee meeting and after the committee meeting, we were all sitting around talking and another representative came up with a plan and said, ‘That would probably be a better fit for Arkansas.’ Discussion immediately turns to ‘Can we get waivers to do that?’" Beck said.
Switching the discussion to roads, Erstine said the state needs to set aside $50 million in order to be eligible for $200 million annually in federal funds for the highway department and asked the legislators if raising the gas tax is necessary to do it.
David Meeks said no.
"Raising the gas tax is not an option to me," he said. "I believe there are other solutions. Poor people would be hit the most if the gas tax was raised."
Stephen Meeks said a lot of people don’t grasp how large of an issue this is for the state.
"Arkansas is the smallest geographic state west of the Mississippi; however, we ranked 12th in the nation as far as state highway miles," he said. "We’re ranked next to California, so that gives you an idea of just how many highway miles we’re talking [about]. … I think that all options need to be considered on this issue."
Rapert agreed about the importance of roads.
"Roads are vital. Where roads are, economic development happens, jobs happen," he said before adding that he doesn’t plan to vote for a new tax.
House compared the highway department to a college student "using Daddy’s credit card," illustrating that he wants more accountability from the department before "handing over any more money."
Erstine asked the lawmakers, given all of the "dark money" that was used in judicial races in the state this year whether they thought judges should continue to be elected or if they should be appointed.
David Meeks said he would be in favor of appointing judges with some caveats including that "the state Senate has a say in the appointment and they’re not lifetime appointments — the judge has to go through reappointment process."
House said he would be in favor of a "hybrid" process where local judges are elected and judges at the state level are appointed for not more than six years. He said he thinks the state Supreme Court Chief Justice should be chosen by other Supreme Court justices.
He said he wasn’t "locked in" to this plan and would be open to listening to other ideas.
Rapert said taking away residents’ right to vote in judicial races was an "immediate red flag" to him. Instead, he would like to see laws that focus on "truth in advertising" in political races.
"We need a higher standard in politics, in general," he said.
The discussion that was scheduled to last about an hour and a half — from 6-7:30 p.m. — went past 8 p.m., with several residents staying after to approach the legislators with questions of their own.
Rapert said he was excited about the turnout and he hopes to organize another town hall meeting in the near future.