District 26 State Senate Candidates

District 26 state Senate hopefuls Mike Akin, a Republican from Monticello, and Eddie Cheatham, a Democrat from Crossett, fielded questions Monday night from three members of the media during a debate sponsored by the Ward I Leadership Council, a Monticello organization.

Asked if they would be able to put party politics aside and work for the common good of all, Cheatham, who is currently serving as a state Representative, said he could work with both parties and gave an example of how he did that while working on a usury bill several years ago when he was co-chairman of the state House Agencies Committee.

“By getting enough Democrats and enough Republicans together, I killed their bill and we put mine on the ballot,” he said.

Responding to the same question, Akin said he will not have any problem crossing party lines and work with Democrats.

“I think by and large Arkansans want to work together and make something happen,” Akin said. “I’ve been in business for myself for 30 years and every day is a negotiation. Every day is a compromise. Every day you work with people from customers to vendors. I don’t know if they’re Republicans or Democrats and I don’t ask them. I just know that they’re sensible folks and we work together and get something done. So I don’t see the state Legislature as any different as that. Hopefully, we’re working for what’s in the best interest of the citizens of the state that we love and live in…”

Responding to a question about the expansion of the Medicaid program, Akin said he has reservations based on funding.

“I’d like to see the people covered,” Akin said. “However, the statement has been made that it will be funded by the federal government and if, at some point along the way, it begins to cost the state of Arkansas something, we can opt out of it.” His reservation, he said, is once you’ve given someone something it is extremely hard to try to take it back. Moveover, it would be unreasonable and unfair to do so.

Akin said he doesn’t have enough information to say if he is for or against it, but health care coverage for the uninsured is going to take some creativity.

Cheatham didn’t say whether or not he supports the expansion but did say he has concerns about it.

“I’m not trying to straddle the fence but there is a lot of information out there that has not been settled,” Cheatham said. “I’ve always said I will not do anything… that will affect Arkansas in a negative way.”

Addressing a mailout on his voting record, Cheatham said the conservative group Americans for Prosperity is spending $100 million in 35 states. The organization is funded by the Koch brothers who own businesses in those states.

Cheatham said he was told that a candidate would get $50,000 worth of mailouts for his or her campaign if they would sign a no tax pledge. Most of the information in the mailouts, he said, is “half-truths and twisted truths.”

“I’m running two races,” he said. “I’m running a race against Mike Akin and I’m running against Americans for Prosperity…”

The same panelist who brought up the mailout asked Akin about “rumors” he heard involving alcohol. The panelist said he understood Akin had recommended that a local group support Vote for Growth in Monticello, an organization that attempted to get a wet-dry issue on the ballot.

“You’re misinformed,” Akin said.

Akin said there were members of the Vote for Growth group that approached Twenty for the Future, a Monticello organization, requesting $15,000 to fund the promotion of the wet-dry issue.

Akin, president of Twenty for the Future, said he told the group he didn’t see how the organization could support it but it was a decision that had to be made by the members of the organization.

“I polled a majority of the membership of the organization and they all emphatically said ‘no, we do not need to be endorsing this,'” Akin said. “And after seeking legal counsel, because we’re a non-profit organization, we could not legally endorse it. So, no, we have not endorsed the wet-dry issue, which has obviously since failed to get on the ballot because they couldn’t get enough signatures on the petitions. They were going to pay so much for signatures and that’s what the money was going to be used for and that, in itself, in my opinion, is not right either.”

Regarding the panelist’s question about the serving of alcohol at a new restaurant in Monticello, Akin said he is not an owner of the business or the building where the restaurant will be located.

“I’m not a part of that restaurant business nor am I a part of the ownership of that particular piece of property,” Akin said.

Given that there are sometimes competing interests among the counties, the candidates were asked how they would ensure that each county in District 26 receives fair and equal representation.

“We’ve got to work together,” Cheatham said. “We can’t be jealous of Chicot County if they get a business over there, we can’t be jealous of Drew County, or Ashley County…. Our economic development gentleman in Crossett, Mike Smith, does an excellent job and we’ve talked at length and he’s working on a project that links three counties together if it comes to fruition…. We’ve got to learn to work together in each county. We can’t be just for Drew County or Ashley County or Chicot or Desha or Cleveland or Lincoln or Bradley. We’ve got to learn to work together.”

Akin pointed to Northwest Arkansas as an example of what communities working together can achieve.

“They work together and as a result of that, all of it has just about grown together,” Akin said. “You don’t really know when you leave one and go into another. Regionalism is the only way we’re going to successfully grow Southeast Arkansas… Hopefully we can develop a regional approach that all of the counties and communities will buy into.”

Asked if they have any specific measures in mind to create new jobs, Cheatham said the economic development groups in each community know what they need and want and what their dreams are.

“If I’m elected, I’ll be there to move those dreams forward,” Cheatham said. “I’ll open doors at the Capitol.”

Akin said maybe Arkansas needs a “super salesman.” He said perhaps each community, or the region as a whole, should identify what it is good at and contact maybe three companies that would be a good fit for those resources.

“Why don’t we make appointments with (the prospective businesses) and go see them and understand, before we get there, we want them to be brutally honest with us… and say, ‘if you won’t consider coming to Southeast Arkansas, we want to know three reasons why,'” Akin said. “And if they’re honest and tell you why, we go back home and decide if it is within our power to change or modify the reasons they’ve given for not coming to our community. And if it is, and that’s where maybe the uncomfortable part comes in, we’ve got to make some changes.”

Also, Akin said, Southeast Arkansas needs to be a thorn in the side of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. “They need to almost want to turn around and go the other way when they see us coming because they know we’re going to get straddle of their neck and say “what prospect are you working on today for Southeast Arkansas?” because they have every other community in Arkansas beating on their door and calling them on the phone asking them the same question.

Regarding existing industries, Akin said government regulation is killing them.

“We’ve got to get government off their backs,” he said. “Regulation is killing them. I can cite you example after example right here in this district of people that are dealing with regulation that has absolutely got them by the throat and it’s choking them with fines and levies.”

Asked if he would be a full-time senator, if elected, Akin said he would devote whatever time is necessary to do the job.

He admitted that he has business interests that takes time but he has sold Akin Industries and his 10-year term on the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees expires this year.

“There’s 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week and a lot of people are able to juggle a lot of things and I will devote whatever time is necessary to get the job done,” Akin said.

Asked about funding for the University of Arkansas at Monticello, Akin said he doesn’t know why UAM was among the universities in south Arkansas that didn’t get additional funding.

“The governor had money that got awarded to 4-year institutions and UAM, SAU, Henderson and UAPB did not get any of it,” Akin said. “That’s a question mark for me. I thought it would have been proportionately shared across the state with all 4-year institutions.”

Akin said when he asked why UAM was left out he couldn’t get a satisfactory answer.

“We’re not talking about a huge amount of money but I’m sure anything would have been appreciated,” he said.

Cheatham said the funding formula was agreed upon by the university presidents.

“Jimmy, am I not right?” Cheatham asked Sen. Jimmy Jeffress, who was seated in the audience.

“UAM is dear to my heart and so is SAU, where I graduated, but I think the size of the institution played into that,” Cheatham said. “I can’t remember the formula but there was some criteria in there and if there was ever any additional money put in there UAM may get some. It wasn’t anything the governor and his staff did, it was something that was agreed upon by the chancellors and presidents of the 4-year schools.”

Cheatham said he is concerned about the dues and tuitions charged at the universities.

“During Mike’s term (on the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees) tuition and fees in the university system have been raised over $750 million…. this concerns me about the no tax pledge, at some point we’ve got to raise money for our colleges and universities.”

Responding to Cheatham’s statement about how much college tuition and fees have increased, Akin said costs have gone up over the last 10 years. “Utilities have gone up, insurance has gone up, maintenance has gone up and we’re supposed to be competitive with other schools in the SEC. It costs more, so when state appropriations are flat and if you have any inflation whatsoever, how are you going to fund it?”

The University of Arkansas is in the bottom three in tuition among the schools in the SEC, and tuition at UAM is a bargain, Akin added.

Saying that Southeast Arkansas has regressed during the six years Cheatham has served in the state Legislature, Akin asked Cheatham what is going to be different if he is elected to the state Senate.

“Mike, I’m not sure we have regressed,” Cheatham said. “We’ve lost population because of people moving to Northwest Arkansas and people moving out of state. I’ve lived pretty good the last six years on that $15,000 a year (state Legislature) salary… We’ve attracted businesses in the Crossett area. I assisted with those. You may not know it but I had some influence in the Monticello deal with the rail. But I think you’ve got to keep going to the plate and swinging the bat, you just can’t get a homerun every time.”

Given the opportunity to ask Akin a question, Cheatham said Akin signed a “no tax” pledge yet accepted a $1.2 million grant of tax money to move his business from Monticello to Dumas. “So, on one hand you say you are for cutting taxes but you don’t mind using those tax dollars to create jobs. So if the opportunity came up to create jobs in Arkansas and it took a tax to do it, you’d be against it, is that correct?”

Akin said as far as he knows there was no tax increase to fund that program and it was a loan. It was a $1.2 million loan with a $500,000 rebate for creating new jobs, making it a $700,000 loan. That loan, he said, had a $10 million or $12 million investment return to the state.

Akin said in 2000, when Bassett Industries closed its plant in Dumas, some people in Dumas approached him saying they had heard that he was interested in expanding Akin Industries and the Bassett building was available, along with a trained workforce that was ready to go back to work.

“Let’s get all of the cards on the table,” Akin said. “I was on the Arkansas Economic Development Commission at the time and had been appointed to it by Gov. Mike Huckabee and I was fully aware of programs that the state Legislature had authorized to give to businesses to create jobs. I talked to the director of the agency and said we are looking to expand and it would be a good fit but this is not going to look good because I’m sitting on the commission. And they said ‘if you qualify, we’re not going to discriminate against you because you’re on the commission.'”

So, Akin said, he applied and qualified for the program. The state then gave the city of Dumas a $1.2 million grant and Dumas loaned the money to Akin Industries.

“There was a caveat in it,” Akin said. “It was a $1.2 million loan and if we created x number of jobs over the course of 24 months, $500,000 of that loan got rebated back to us. The monkey was on my back. I’m on the hook for the loan. I signed personal endorsements; Susan (Akin’s wife) was on the note, and (I got a) second mortgage on my house. We were trying to do something for Southeast Arkansas…. So, I’m on the hook for the loan knowing I better claw like crazy to make something happen or I don’t get the incentive (rebate)…. So, we do create the jobs in the course of 24 months and we do get the rebate.”

The loan was paid off in eight years, he said.

“Over the course of eight years, we created a payroll in excess of $4 million a year – you do the math, how much in payroll taxes does that fold back into the community? Property taxes on that facility are in excess of $20,000 a year and it’s been there for 12 years, that’s $250,000 the last time I checked, and that’s been rolled back into the community, and the sales tax for goods that were sold in Arkansas. We were doing $20 million a year in revenue and at least $2 million of it was sold in the state of Arkansas, I charged sales tax on that of six percent… that’s $120,000 a year that was rolled back into the state. How many times does a payroll dollar roll over in a community? Don’t they say five or six times? And I had people working there from all over Southeast Arkansas and they’re going home and spending their payroll dollars in their respective communities. So, the way I calculate it, a $500,000 investment by the state  — it wasn’t $1.2 million grant, it was a $1.2 million loan that turned into a $700,000 loan which we have since paid off — turned into about $10 million to $12 million over the course of 10 years. Would I have made that investment? Probably so, So, I don’t think it’s such a bad deal.”

“Now, Eddie talks about tax increases and my willingness to sign the ‘no tax’ pledge, I don’t know that it took any tax increase to facilitate that program,” Akin said. “I just happen to believe that we’re taxed enough.”

Asked if they support the medical marijuana initiative, Cheatham and Akin both said no.