HOT SPRINGS, Arkansas — Low pay and high insurance premiums are such big problems within the Arkansas public school system that, even given a chance to make a bold promise during a heated political campaign, the state's leading candidates for governor couldn't do so before a teachers' group last week.
Republican Asa Hutchinson and Democrat Mike Ross stood for a time as sounding boards at a meeting of the Arkansas Public School Resource Center met in Hot Springs, bearing teacher complaints. They brought a truckload of empathy to teachers seeking a wheelbarrow of money.
"My obligation and duty first as governor is to balance the budget," Ross told the group. "We've got to fund education, Medicaid, public safety, keep our neighborhoods safe. Then as we have revenue growth we have to address the needs of the state" and consider tax cuts.
Hutchinson — each candidate addressed the same set of questions — laid out the harsh reality with similar language.
"We have a constitutional responsibility to fund education and that's our first responsibility," Hutchinson said. "We have to balance the budget. We have to fund education and I am committed to doing that. We both have the same legal constraints on what we want to do budget-wise."
With an average starting pay of $30,000 and insurance premiums of $1,000 or more a month, "it's very hard for us teachers to encourage children to come into the teaching profession," one teacher lamented. "When a student looks at my face, it's hard for them to see the benefit of going to college."
In each of the past two summers, legislators shuffled state funds to avoid public school employee insurance premium increases of up to 35 percent. Ross said he had met workers whose pay didn't cover all of their premiums and Hutchinson said a teacher from Star City showed him a $3,800 paycheck with $1,100 taken out for insurance.
"That just strikes you," he said. "That's a chunk when you have your other deductions as well."
At the end of their hour-long visit with the teachers, there was no outlandish promise that things could be fixed in the short term.
Legislators last year put together a $140 million tax cut amid negotiations over Arkansas' "private option" Medicaid plan that uses federal money to buy insurance for the working poor — but the impact won't arrive until after Gov. Mike Beebe leaves office in January.
"Starting pay for teachers should be increased but I cannot stand here and promise you that we can afford to do that in Year One," Ross told the teachers. The upcoming tax cut will slice into expected revenue growth next year, leaving Arkansas with only about $50 million more in revenue.
"Those tax cuts don't take effect until Asa or I take office," Ross said. "The next governor starts with $140 million less than Gov. Beebe had this year."
Hutchinson said the hope for teachers lies in expanding the state's economy to the point that well-educated students can remain in Arkansas if they want high-paying jobs.
"We're typically a low-income state. The best way to increase teacher salaries ... is to grow the economy," he said. "When you do that you are increasing your ability to build highways and you're increasing your funding for education, so growth is particularly important to educators in this state. ...
"If we can provide jobs for those students when they get out (of college) and they can see their future in this state, then we're all better off," Hutchinson said.
Both candidates said teachers will do a better job in the classroom if they aren't worried about mortgages or car notes at the same time.
"We've got to make sure we take care of our teachers," Hutchinson said.
Ross said he had no doubt a solution is out there, but cautioned that districts or workers might have to pay more through changes in premiums, co-pays and deductibles.
"It's a complicated issue but it is one that can be fixed, and probably, if it's fixed successfully, at the end of the day nobody will be happy," he said.
Kissel has been Arkansas news editor for The Associated Press since 1994. Follow him at http://www.twitter.com/kisselAP
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