Today, a rising star in the Arkansas Democratic party answers questions from Blue Arkansas. Senator Robert Thompson of Paragould is going places, mark my words. He decided not to run for Berry’s seat this year to look after his three young (and adorable) children, but there’s still a bright political future ahead for him. Here’s how he responds to the questions and concerns of Arkansas progressives:
1) Please introduce us and tell us a bit about your background. Specifically, what lead you into public service?
I am an attorney and have practiced law at Paragould for a little over 10 years. I previously served as an attorney at Little Rock and a law clerk to Judge Richard S. Arnold of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. I am married with three children. I became interested in public service because I personally find government fascinating, and I think I can contribute something useful to state government public discourse.
2) Why are you a Democrat and what does being a Democrat mean to you?
I am a Democrat because I believe it is the party that best represents the financial and social interests of most Americans and most Arkansans. I believe government has a role in promoting the well-being of the people. I do not consider myself much of an ideologue, however, and I tend favor practical solutions to public problems. Because of that, I feel comfortable in the Democratic Party.
3) You’ve been an advocate for drug courts in the past, correct? Could you first explain what those are and why you think they’re so important?
Drug courts are a method of sentencing non-violent drug offenders to a form of intensive probation, to encourage them to end their addiction while using the threat of greater penalties as an inducement. It’s a great carrot-and-stick approach to the drug problem. I favor drug courts because it is one tool to tackle the problem of our increasing prison population. The growth rate in our prison population over the past 15 years in Arkansas is alarming, expensive and unsustainable.
4) You’ve also pushed for more use of biofuels if I’m not mistaken. Could you explain what lead you to push that issue and what the benefits of biofuels are or will be?
I believe we should be looking for alternatives to fossil fuels, and that biofuels are a promising source of alternative energy. Arkansas, as an agricultural state, could be a leader in this regard. I also believe Arkansas could be a leader in other forms of alternative fuels, including wind energy.
5) Jumping off of the biofuels question, do you believe that global warming is real and the result of human activity? What do you think should be done about this problem?
From what I have read, it seems clear that carbon consumption by people is a cause of climate change in the past century and continuing today. I confess that I do not know the best answer to the problem. I am not sure that it would be effective or wise for the United States to sharply curtail carbon consumption domestically without some agreement that other leading carbon consumers, like China, take similar steps. As far the state of Arkansas goes, the best thing we can do is to prepare for and work toward an economy to places less emphasis on traditional fossil fuels and more emphasis on sustainable energy, such as wind and biofuels.
6) Right now the state is looking at some painful budget cuts. What choices do you feel the state should make when it considers what to cut and what to preserve?
All budget cuts are painful, but I would point out that our budget problems, at least to this point, are manageable and fairly mild compared to almost every other state government. The budget cuts so far have fallen heaviest on higher education, which unfortunately is the easiest area to cut, as they have other sources of revenue (in the form of student tuition). Another easy short-term fix is to freeze wage increases state employee wages, which I support. I believe (and it is the law of the state) that the last cuts should fall on K-12 public education. The biggest long-term challenge for our state’s budget is the growth in Medicaid costs.
7) Speaking of the budget, Arkansas’ tax code is widely recognized to be regressive. Do you favor progressive taxation in principle? How in your view could/should the state work to improve the state tax code?
Arkansas’ tax code is less regressive than it used to be, with recent reductions in the sales tax on groceries and the homestead credit for real estate taxes. I have, in recent legislative sessions, supported increases some forms of revenue to pay for specific state programs — increases in the severance tax to pay for transportation costs and increases in the cigarette tax to pay for new health programs. I must say, however, that I don’t know now where we could reasonably increase taxes. Our state income tax rate, at 7 percent, is the highest in the region – any increase there could cause of flow of capital out-of-state. Our sales tax is about at the point that any increase might actually cause declining revenues, as people buy goods out-of-state. (Increasing the sales tax also effectively hamstrings the ability of local governments to increase revenues for local projects.) The streamlined sales tax adopted by about 30 states (designed to capture revenue from internet sales by taxing goods at a point-of-delivery rather than a point-of-sale) may help with revenue, though I am advised by merchants in my district that there are some real problems with implementation.
8 ) After last year, health care has been on everyone’s mind. Let’s assume that nothing happens on health care at the federal level. Do you support any kind of guarantee of universal health care and what should the state do to improve health care here in Arkansas?
I believe the government should work toward a system that provides health care to every American. I have been as befuddled as most Americans in watching the health-care debate, and don’t understand why some seemingly common-sense proposals (like allowing Americans over 55 who don’t have access to group-health coverage, to buy into the Medicare system) were only briefly considered and quickly abandoned. As a state, our most challenging health-care task is to fund Medicaid over the coming years, which I consider to be a priority. I also believe as a state should promote wellness programs, particularly an emphasis on arresting the alarming growth in childhood obesity.
9) Here in Arkansas, LGBT Arkansas feel ignored, marginalized, even victimized by the state’s politics. Could you sum up your stand on the rights of LGBT Arkansans?
I voted against the recent ballot measure that prevented unmarried couples from adopting children. I don’t much care for people or politicians who single out or beat up on any group of people, including gay people.
10) Do you support the right of worker’s to form a union?
I would not support a repeal of Arkansas’ right-to-work statute. I do believe that unions have improved the lives of workers in the past century, and have been important in establishing a broad middle class. I have voted in favor of bills that protect workers’ compensation rights.
11) A lot of Arkansans feel shut out by the process of government in Little Rock, and many would maintain that corporations, entrinched interests, and the wealthiest Arkansans hold a disproportionate amount of sway in state government. What do you have to say about this concern?
I agree that corporate influence at all levels of government is pervasive. That said, I must say that I believe state government is fairly accessible. I believe most state legislators, if contacted by a constituent, would take time to visit with them on the phone and meet with them in their offices. (I certainly do that almost every day.) I have sponsored ethics legislation in the past, including a bill in 2007 that would have created a waiting period of one year between service in the state legislature and work as a lobbyist. (It failed narrowly.)
12) Last question. Why should any progressive vote for you?
I think a progressive would want to vote for me because I believe government has a positive and important role to play in the lives of Arkansans, and has done much to improve the lot of people in our state. I think anyone of any political stripe could vote for me because I make it point to listen to all sides of the issue, work on finding consensus if possible, and favor practical solutions to problems.
Senator Thompson may not describe himself in ideological terms, but you don’t have to be an ideologue to be a progressive, or to hold progressive values. Clearly, Senator Thompson’s heart is in the right place-dealing with our bloated and unsustainable prison population, supporting sustainable energy and universal health care, working for ethical government, and condemning the politics of bigotry. What’s more, he seems to have a sharp mind and a practical approach that serves him, and these issues, well.
Now of course he won’t agree on every issue with us-I can hear a few of my union buddies firing off e-mails right now and I have to say I disagree with some of his statements on higher income taxes-but none of us are single issue voters, and it’s unrealistic to think anyone should be in lockstep. (People who think that’s what progressives want are looking at a characature of us and nothing more.) The whole picture is what we’re looking at, and while Thompson may not be a progressive champion like Jay Barth, he is still a better Democrat than many we could all name off the tops of our heads, and someone we should have our eye on. I hope in the future he visits us here at Blue Arkansas-we’d love to have him and would be happy to work with him.