AR Youth Question Elected Officials

From Harrison Daily Times

The Elected Leadership Coffee was held Thursday at the JPH Center at North Arkansas College. College president Dr. Randy Esters welcomed the group who were socially distanced in the room and shared information about a new project underway.

“Our newest project is a center for manufacturing and automation, planned for the space on the hill by the greenhouse,” Esters said. “We will be rolling this project out very soon with the funding streams and what it will look like. We have world class technology, robots, automation, CNC machines — some of the best in the world and the most modern. We have what you see when you go to the workplace, and they are housed in the building on our north campus that was built in the 60s. So, the outside of the building doesn’t match the inside.

“We want to build a facility that matches. A modern outside with an inside that houses computers, information technology, all the digital world we live in today for manufacturing. We have machines that mold, turn and make the items we use every day. We have manufacturers right here in Harrison that are on the cutting edge, yet the College has not necessarily kept up with the image that industry has.

“Manufacturing is no longer dirty hands, where you walk in clean, and walk out full of smoke,” Esters said. “Now manufacturing is pushing buttons, everything is digitally controlled.”

The two-story building will be around 30,000 square feet and house manufacturing, advanced manufacturing, information technology, automation, and several other related programs like electronics.

Harrison Regional Chamber of Commerce president/CEO Bob Largent thanks Dr. Esters for the use of the JPH Center and introduced the elected officials who would be answering questions asked by those attending.

US Congressman Steve Womack and state Rep. Ron McNair attended via Zoom. State Sens. Scott Flippo and Breanne Davis as well as state Rep. Jack Fortner were in person.

Also attending were the Boone County Adult Leadership Class and the Youth Leadership Academy as well as some chamber board members.

Each elected official gave a greeting and then Largent, asked for hard questions.

Womack said he was honored and proud to be serving this district and wanted to discuss some important issues facing the nation from Washington. “I hope we can get back to work after Tuesday’s election. Our fiscal year started Oct. 1 and we only have enough appropriations to keep the government funded until Dec. 11. We don’t want to see any government shutdowns again,” he said. He admitted that COVID has been the focus for most of 2020.

“I am disappointed we haven’t seen something come through lately. But every day I know I have to work with people who think differently than I do. But I’ll be honest, there is an impasse with the COVID relief package because it has been weaponized by Speaker Pelosi. The Hero’s Package has a lot in it that has nothing to do with COVID.”

Womack shared some specific examples of items attached to the package that do not help businesses trying to stay open because of the virus. “It’s no wonder the public is cynical about their government. Pelosi is withholding this package because it would help businesses and doesn’t want that attributed to President Trump before the election. There is $140 billion sitting there ready for businesses but the authorization expired in August. She refuses to bring it to the people. We need to provide relief to rural hospitals — I don’t need to tell you that.”

Davis said, “Equitable higher ed funding and making sure we are educating our workforce is close to my heart.”

Flippo told the group, “Your state government has some important decisions to make, and we need to hear from you.”

Fortner said he wanted one of the young people in the room to take his place and encouraged them to get into serving the public.

McNair was attending a budget meeting in Little Rock and unable to give opening remarks, but joined the call later.

The first question asked was about Issue 1. “Why should hard working people pay for this when it could come from other areas of the budget?”

Davis said it was important to her to let Arkansans vote on the issue if we wanted it to continue. She felt like the highway department didn’t have enough control over them. “I definitely have concerns about it, but I wanted the people to decide.”

Fortner said, “I voted for it to come out and be on the ballot. I thought you should decide. I would have preferred to have us deal with it. That’s our job. You voted me in to represent you. But I was in the minority, so I voted to have you decide. I don’t like it being a constitutional amendment, but I support the issue and want to see you vote on it. The roads need money. We have a new director of the highway department and I have a great deal of faith in her. I believe she means what she says and wants to make a difference and be more accountable.

All the officials agreed that our roads need money and said they were for the issue. Fortner told the group that 40% of that highway money goes to the local county and city governments for roads. “They rely on this money like it’s going to be there forever. They don’t have it budgeted in, if it goes away they will have to find another source — and that will be us. Thirty-two million tourists come each year and they buy gas and pay tax to help us fund our roads,” Fortner said.

Womack said, “Let’s be honest. Roads, transportation, infrastructure are a critical piece of our economic development and very expensive to build. But we like the programs, but we have to find a way to pay for them. The last time the federal gas tax was raised was in 1993. It was not indexed for inflation. So, you can imagine how the costs have gone up since then. Gas tax is the best user fee out there because the tax is built into the price.”

Largent said, “Without this tax, Boone County would lose $989,000 a year for our roads. This includes each area’s municipalities. Just the budget for gravel for one year is $325,000. The Chamber of Commerce has chosen to support Issue One because of the pure economic development reasons. We are a mini transportation hub and everyone who drives should help pay for this.”

The next question was about minimum wage from an educator’s perspective and wondering if the state had plans to help fund those additional wages.

Each one agreed the market should dictate the wages because of the cascading effect on prices and small businesses turning to automation to take jobs away.

The minimum wage increase proposals came from sources outside the state, which prompted discussion about Issue 3 and the seriousness of changing the state constitution by “citizens — who are actually, high powered, well financed, out of state groups” pushing for decisions that local individuals do not want for their areas, Flippo explained.

The discussion concluded with officials asked how they started in politics and what were their recommendations to the teenagers and young adults in the room who might be considering a career as a public servant.

Fortner said, “I was serious when I said I wanted one of you to take my job. But don’t get into politics to be cool. Do it because of passion. Confidence is a gift you give yourself.”

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