Attendees at a town hall gathering Monday night in Vilonia were told to keep an open mind concerning a proposal to bring the state fair to Faulkner County.

A four-man panel including Rep. Eddie Hawkins, Sen. Gilbert Baker, both of Conway, Justice of the Peace Steve Goode of Vilonia and Jack Lawrence of the Faulkner County Road Department representing the County Judge’s office were seated in front of an audience of about 50 people. 

The event, sponsored by the Vilonia Area Chamber of Commerce, was informal with audience members as well as the panel allowed to speak out on issues.

Hawkins opened the meeting by saying, "We don’t work in Washington." 

Local issues mentioned included the U.S. Highway 64 bypass around Vilonia and the new county fairgrounds being built. 

"I think everything is in pretty good shape," Lawrence said of the fairgrounds. Audience member Charlie Weaver, also a member of the Vilonia Planning Commission, said plans are underway to allow the third phase (paving) contract to go out for bid. 

On that same note, Hawkins noted an effort to bring the state fair to Faulkner County. He encouraged those in attendance to keep an open mind.

"I have heard some say they don’t want it," Hawkins said. "But, it’s only two weeks out of the year. Think of the tremendous economic development. It would be two weeks of terrible traffic. It’s big, big money."

While the panel may have been more prepared to address local and state issues, some audience members wanted to hear more about proposed health care legislation on a national level, and the majority of the meeting was spent addressing the subject. 

While they didn’t really detail many of the specifics,  Hawkins and Baker appeared to be in agreement that something needs to be done and the proposed initiative on overhauling the U.S. health care system will be costly. 

"I don’t think it is a good plan for us to pursue (the current initiative) because of the price tag," Baker said, adding that the price tag of the current proposal would exceed $800 billion. 

Baker also said he doesn’t believe that adding taxes to provide health care is a good option now. It would delay, he said, improvement in the economy.  He called for a bipartisan approach, with everyone working together regardless of their political affiliations. Showing his support, Hawkins shook his head in an affirmative manner.  

"We need to find a way to attack it and bring everyone together," Baker concluded.  

The panel as well as audience members volleyed their opinions concerning the actual cost of health care versus the abuse of health care. 

Audience member Stephanie Norman suggested that reform should begin with consumers also being required to take an active role in bringing the costs down. She called for public education efforts. As well, Goode suggested there should be "common sense reform."

"You are absolutely right," Baker said. "You can’t legislate people to do the right thing, but you can’t legislate people’s hearts. There’s not enough tax money out there."

During the mix, Norman asked the panel their opinion concerning providing help for drug abusers such as increasing the number of rehabilitation facilities. Baker said he strongly supports drug courts.

"It’s a good use of money," he said. "It’s a way for them to stay clean, go to rehab and clean up. That’s preventive money of sorts."  

He said he is also in support of community-based rehab programs such as John 3:16, a Christian-based rehab facility, that offers a recovery program for men.   

"At the end of the day, families, churches and individuals need to step up and help," he said.  

A few other subjects touched on during the meeting was a "sprinkler bill" addressed during the last legislative session in Arkansas that failed. If passed, audience member Ron Harris said, the bill would have mandated sprinkler systems in houses costing about $3,500 in a 2,000-square-foot house.   

"If it comes up again, please let us know," Harris asked of the panel. 

There was also brief discussion concerning a climate and energy bill being debated in Congress that could boost American’s electric bills. 

Baker said his telephone is "burning up," addressing that issue. Should that legislation pass, Baker predicted it would add $100 to most Arkansans electric bills. Goode, who owns several grocery stores, added that it would add about $1,500 to a grocery store’s bill.  

The meeting concluded with Baker being quizzed on his plans for seeking a higher office.

When you get there, what are your plans, one man asked.  Among other issues, Baker said he would support a "tax system that is a lot flatter and more fair."