District 9 State Representative hopefuls Sheilla Lampkin, a Democrat from Monticello, and Gary Meggs, a Republican from Monticello, fielded questions Monday night from three members of the media during a debate sponsored by the Ward I Leadership Council, a Monticello organization.
Questions ranged from the expansion of the Medicaid program in Arkansas to job creation, a proposed sales tax increase for highways, direct mail from the state Republican Party, and one panelist gave the candidates an opportunity to ask their opponent a question.
Asked if he supports the expansion of the Medicaid program in Arkansas, Meggs said Medicaid is “near and dear” to his heart because it is helping his elderly mother but he is, however, concerned about how an expansion would be funded given that there is a projected $400 million shortfall in the program for next year.
“Before we expand something I want to make sure we figure out how we’re going to pay that $400 million next year for the people who are already (on the rolls),” Meggs said. “Are you going to raise taxes or cut something? The federal government says it isn’t going to cost us anything the first few years to expand Medicaid for approximately 250,000 new people on Medicaid rolls. That sounds good, but who pays federal income taxes? I do. You do… And in three short years after it’s implemented (we have to come up with 10 percent) and that’s several million more dollars…,” Meggs said.
Meggs said he wants to help people but he doesn’t want to vote for something if he doesn’t know what impact it will have on future generations.
Though she said she is inclined to support it, Lampkin stopped short of committing her support because it needs more study.
Part of the reason the Arkansas Medical Society and Arkansas Hospital Association are supporting it is because they believe it will save some of the rural hospitals, according to Lampkin.
“And the way it is set up, I understand the Drew County hospital is supposed to get right at $1 million and Ashley County is supposed to get about $500,000 and that’s one reason they’re pushing it,” she said. “I think it needs some study but on the surface I think it’s going to help.”
Another reason they’re pushing it, she said, is it will help the uninsured.
“There are people out there hurting and I think it is our Christian duty to try to help them to a point. What that point is, is what needs to be debated,” Lampkin said.
Given the divisiveness of the Democrats and Republicans, the candidates were asked how they, if elected, would facilitate reasonable compromise among their colleagues to work for the common good of all.
Lampkin said she can listen to both sides and knows how and when to compromise. During the last legislative session, she said, there were people who wondered which side she was on because she can listen to both sides.
“I’ve learned that I don’t always get all of my way and I can compromise,” she said, adding that she believes the “my way or the highway” attitude is part of what is wrong with the country.
“You don’t have to give in on everything but you have to at least listen to the other side and be reasonable,” she said. “And that’s something I’ve always done. I’ve been married 45 years to the same man and that’s one reason. I don’t always win but he doesn’t either. You pick your battles.”
Meggs said he doesn’t believe he would have any problem working with either side.
“There are some things I wouldn’t compromise,” he said. “Some of my convictions are not compromisable but there are many avenues I believe we can work together on to reach things that are good for us.”
Meggs said he has felt for a long time that this part of the state has been left out.
“We don’t get the things that we need and I think those kinds of things are not compromisable,” he said. “I think when the person gets in office they go up there and they stand their ground for the things we need down here. I don’t think those things are compromisable at all. However, there are other bigger areas statewide that I believe we could compromise on and get along with. I do agree that things have gotten so polarized in this nation that there is no middle ground anymore in many areas of our political life and I don’t think that’s acceptable.”
In an apparent attempt to contrast the time the two candidates would dedicate to the job, one of the panelists asked Meggs if he would be a full-time or part-time legislator if elected. Meggs said he had no plans to be in Little Rock 100 percent of the time.
“I personally don’t think we need any more full-time politicians. I think that’s a problem,” he said. “These positions were not set up to be full-time jobs. These jobs as representatives are low in salary because they were designed for the person to leave the farm and go to Little Rock and take care of business for the folks and go back home and be in the workforce. Having said that, no, I don’t intend to be 100 percent at Little Rock all the time. That costs the state way too much money and I don’t think it’s what the state calls for and I don’t think that’s what we need.”
Meggs said he has, however, signed paperwork at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, where he is the director of bands, cutting his time commitment and salary in half to ensure he has plenty of time to do the job if he is elected.
Lampkin says she will be a full-time legislator.
The same panelist then asked Lampkin and Meggs what they can offer that their opponent can’t.
Lampkin said she has experience working in the legislature. “I think that’s important because when you go up there, nobody breaks their neck to help you,” she said. “They might want to tell you what to do but they don’t go up there to help you.”
Lampkin, the District 10 state representative, retired classroom teacher and civic volunteer with a variety of interests, said she believes she has a better grasp on what the community, as a whole, needs. She said she can offer time, insight and experience to address the needs of Southeast Arkansas.
Meggs said he has a broad view of the needs of those in this part of the state. His view comes from the perspective of several generations of family members and UAM students from a variety of economic backgrounds. The 20-plus years he spent in Texas also gives him a unique perspective in that he can make a comparison of what people in the surrounding area is getting that south Arkansas isn’t.
Meggs said he also has military experience and leadership skills.
“I’ve got 22 years of military experience, some of it active duty and some of it in guard time,” Meggs said. “I’ve got leadership skills and I’m not afraid to stand toe-to-toe with anybody. If I think something is right or we need something down here, it doesn’t matter how hard somebody twists my arm I’m going to do what’s right for us whether it means reelection or not; that’s not important to me. I have no interest in being a career politician. I have an interest in being here and helping our folks have some better things down here and turning our part of the state around and then move on and leave it better off so my kids and grandkids can stay here and have a better life.”
Asked to outline their plan to bring new jobs to the area, Lampkin said she would focus on equipping area residents with technical skills needed at small plants, companies and businesses.
“We’re not going to get a Toyota plant here and if we did we couldn’t handle it because we don’t have the infrastructure,” Lampkin said.
She said the area needs more support from the state for its technical schools.
Meggs said he has a three-point plan which addresses service sector, industry, and training the unemployed.
The first part, he said, is expand the University of Arkansas at Monticello and its technical colleges.
“It doesn’t take a lot of brains to figure out that if you double the size of the university, you’ve doubled the economic impact on our area immediately. You’ve opened more jobs for everybody because you have to have more restaurants, more service industry, we have to have better hospitals, better schools, concerts, sporting events, and activities to draw people here.”
The second part of his plan, he said, is to make the entire area a free enterprise zone and relieve some of the rules and regulations on business and industry.
“I believe we can get big industry down here…,” he said. “We can’t continue to depend on the small business guy forever, he’s having a harder and harder time. We need to get some big business down here so they can help carry the burden.”
The third part of his plan, he said, is work with federal lawmakers to make some adjustments so that the unemployed can be trained to fill existing jobs.
“I have a friend in Hamburg that has a company, his name is Jon Bierbaum, and one of his problems is he’s got jobs available and he can’t get anybody to come to work for him because it is too difficult to make the transition from unemployment to the job because of the training aspect.”
Given that there are sometimes competing interests among the counties that make up a legislative district, the candidates were asked how they would assure that each county receives fair and equal representation.
Meggs said he would bring together the administrative offices of each city in a town hall-type meeting and see which community would be best suited for the proposal and come up with a reasonable plan to give it to the county that best suited that situation.
Lampkin said the area needs to try harder to view things from a regional perspective.
“We’re going to have to work real hard to get everybody to understand that we have to work as a region; no man is an island,” she said. “The Southeast Arkansas Economic Development District works real hard toward getting the counties to work together… I think it is more important to work together than try to choose.”
Citing the state highway commission as an example, Lampkin said the area is going to have to get a highway commissioner and insist that he or she find a way to help all of the area within his or her district.
“Up until this point, every time we’ve had a highway commissioner all of the roads around his town got better but what about the other counties?” she said. “We’re going to have to find us a highway commissioner and insist on them finding out a way to help everybody, not just (his) little neighborhood.”
Lampkin said it’s not all about “me” anymore, it’s about “us.”
Asked if they’ll vote strictly party line on their personal election ballots, both Meggs and Lampkin said they vote for the individual.
“I’m about the man or the woman,” Meggs said. “I’ve already said this earlier but if Mrs. Lampkin wins this race, whether she’s a Democrat, and independent, or a Republican, I’ll be her biggest supporter. If that’s what the people want, then that’s what I want.”
Meggs said he has been a Democrat most of his life but the party got too far away from his traditional values to run as a Democrat.
Lampkin said she votes for the individual and has voted for some Republicans over the years and probably will again.
Asked if they support the sales tax proposal for highways, Meggs said he would support it if he was positive that Southeast Arkansas would benefit from it.
“Before I make a commitment to vote on something I am always going to err on the side of caution until I know exactly how it’s going to impact us,” Meggs said.
Lampkin said there are no guarantees but it is the only chance of getting anything. “It’s the only thing we’ve got going at this point, with this director,” she said. “I think it’s a big choice, a big decision to make. I think sometimes maybe you have to look beyond what’s good for me and see what’s good for us. I think that’s the dilemma we’re all in as voters.”
Asked if she could ask her opponent a question what would it be, Lampkin thought about it for a moment then turned to Meggs and asked, “If I had switched parties to Republican would you have been recruited to run?”
“No,” Meggs said.
“OK, your turn,” Lampkin said.
“I know you were asked to change to the Republican Party and I’m curious as to why you did not,” Meggs said.
“At the time, I said that I don’t always agree with either party but at the time I was serving as a Democrat and I told the lady that asked me that I felt like that if I had done that at that time just to make a spectacle of myself it would have betrayed the faith the people (who) elected me as a Democrat, and that’s why,” Lampkin said. “And I still feel that way. Politics has changed. Traditionally, the Democrats have been the party that supported the poor. Traditionally, Republicans have been the party of the wealthy people. And that’s why most of Arkansas used to traditionally be Democrat and I think we all know what’s really behind a lot of this right now in our hearts whether we want to say it or not.”
Questioned early in the debate about a mail-out from the Republican Party regarding her voting record, Lampkin said she is pro-life, opposed to abortion, is a Christian, a Southern Baptist, and plans to vote against the Medical Marijuana Act.
The two candidates closed with final remarks before the debate between District 26 state Senate candidates Republican Mike Akin, a Monticello businessman, and Democrat Eddie Cheatham, a state Representative from Crossett.