LITTLE ROCK â€” Gubernatorial candidates Asa Hutchinson and Mike Ross went before a meeting of local government leaders Thursday, promising to both aid the leaders' economic development efforts and shield them from legislative mandates that are next-to-impossible to accomplish.
The duo did little to set themselves apart from one another before the Arkansas Municipal League. While both are former congressmen, they focused Thursday on their early work in local governments.
Hutchinson, before being elected to Congress as a Republican from northwestern Arkansas, was the Bentonville city attorney, and his father was a small-town mayor. Ross, a Democrat from southern Arkansas, was a county quorum court member before moving on to the state Senate and then Congress.
Hutchinson, who also served as the head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, said his executive experience further helps him understand what it takes to keep a city running.
"That's what a mayor does every day," Hutchinson said.
Each candidate answered the same set of questions in a format Ross called a "nondebate."
The two both said they oppose unfunded mandates, an eternal peeve of mayors and city councils in which legislatures make new rules without putting up the money needed to put them in place.
The pair did differ on public safety. Ross said he favors further prison reforms that keep violent offenders off the streets and put nonviolent offenders in rehabilitative programs.
"When people leave prison, they ought to leave with a job skill," Ross said. He advocated creating a tax break for employers who hire former inmates, saying it would save the state money if the offenders don't wind up back in prison.
Ross said the state needs about 1,000 more prison beds. But he added, "If we build a new prison, there needs to be meaningful prison reforms tied to it," he said.
Hutchinson differed on how nonviolent offenders should be treated, saying convicted burglars deserved to go to jail.
"We have a crime problem," Hutchinson said. "We don't talk about it enough."
Hutchinson said he would emphasize manufacturing as an avenue of economic development, saying companies are opening more factories in the United States after decades of moving work to Mexico and overseas.
Hutchinson said he would approach companies with vendor offices to serve Bentonville-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and encourage them to open plants in Arkansas.
Ross said he would put a new emphasis on community colleges, so young people and older workers who need new skills can get the training they need.
Both candidates pledged to lower state taxes.
The ArkansasÂ governor's race is expected to be one of the most closely watched in the country, with Republicans aiming to complete a takeover of the state's top offices after making gains over the past two elections. Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature and hold two of the state's seven constitutional offices. Two of the statewide officers elected in 2010 â€” one Democrat and one Republican â€” resigned their posts.
Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe is barred by term limits from seeking re-election this fall. Beebe defeated Hutchinson in the 2006 governor's race.