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Ballinger, King square off for Senate District 5 

The firebrand vs. the happy warrior

click to enlarge CONSERVATIVE VS. CONSERVATIVE: Sen. Bryan King is being challenged for his seat by state Rep. Bob Ballinger. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • CONSERVATIVE VS. CONSERVATIVE: Sen. Bryan King is being challenged for his seat by state Rep. Bob Ballinger.

Republican primary voters in state Senate District 5 are in for a treat May 22.

Incumbent Sen. Bryan King and his challenger, state Rep. Bob Ballinger, are both undeniably large personalities. By any ranking, the two men are among the most conservative members of an already conservative Arkansas legislature.

Ballinger is a legislator who appears to relish the opportunities being a lawmaker offers. His advocacy for conservative Christian values has occasionally cast him onto a hostile national stage. But Ballinger isn't about fire and brimstone. He describes himself as one of Ronald Reagan's "happy warriors" and regularly tells his opposition he respects them.

King wants to portray himself as a man who speaks truth to power. King's truth is that Governor Hutchinson, enabled by legislators like Ballinger, has been feigning conservatism while allowing the state budget to grow and expanding Obamacare.

The primary election for this mostly rural district on the margins of Northwest Arkansas fits nicely into the dominant Republican primary drama this election emanating from the gubernatorial contest. The race is one of two GOP primaries pitting Hutchinson-leaning state representatives against incumbent senators favorable to Hutchinson's primary foe, Jan Morgan.

King's animosity toward Hutchinson is always bubbling to the surface. King appears occasionally on "The Paul Harrell Program," a radio show backed by Conduit for Action, a conservative group that has been a thorn in the governor's side. In a September interview, he referenced a letter from one of the governor's office administrative assistants, Doug Smith. It urged Mississippi County Republicans not to let Morgan speak at a function. The governor's office says it was just Smith's personal opinion. The letter itself claims that as well. King sees it differently.

"Get ready for the Hutchinsons, because they know to hold on to power they've got to do the most dirtiest politics out there possible," King told the "Harrell" show audience. "They're afraid of Jan Morgan. They're afraid of the truth."

Ballinger can usually be counted on to have Hutchinson's back at the end of the day while exerting rightward pressure on the conservative governor for the duration of the legislative ride.

Differences are apparent on a few policy issues, such as King's opposition to the Ballinger-backed constitutional amendment on the ballot this November to limit the recovery of noneconomic damages in litigation to $500,000 for injury and neglect, as well as capping attorney fees. But much of the King/Ballinger contest boils down to disagreements over governing style. Is compromise allowable in the pursuit of a more conservative government?

The King/Ballinger election features the prerequisite Republican split over Medicaid expansion, some frank comments about each other's temperaments and the not-so-thrilling kitchen table issue of a new $18 fee to clean up a financial mess at the Ozark Mountain Solid Waste District.

click to enlarge BALLINGER - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • BALLINGER

The Senate district includes Berryville, Huntsville, West Fork, Alma and Mulberry. It borders Missouri on the north, a sliver of Oklahoma on the west and sneaks over to the other side of the Arkansas River south of Lavaca. The district's senator also will represent the liberal bastion of Eureka Springs.

The electoral matchup looked a lot different at the close of last year. Back in December, King told the Madison County Record that his time legislating was over and he wouldn't seek re-election.

"I'm taking care of eight chicken houses and we have family deals," King said at the time. "Primarily, it's just gotten real trying to take care of that and do this on top of it. With Little Rock being far away and this being a big district, things are just kind of trying right now."

Ballinger, a resident of Berryville, declared his candidacy in June. At the time his likely competitor was state Rep. Charlotte Douglas (R-Alma).

But Douglas ultimately never entered the race, and in late February, King unexpectedly declared he had had a change of heart and would seek re-election. Douglas threw her support behind King.

The late entrance means King's campaign funds are starting off well below Ballinger's. In the most recent report available, King's February fundraising consisted of a $7,500 loan from himself to cover the filing fee. His animosity toward the state Republican Party shone through even there: Under the "Description of Expenditure" heading on his financial disclosure form filed with the Arkansas Secretary of State's office, King wrote, "Ridiculous filing fee to establishment."

While King is near the zero dollar mark as his campaign gears up, Ballinger has collected over $27,000. Most of that sum comes from PACs and businesses.

Medicaid expansion

King and Ballinger are both fundamentally opposed to the concept of extending Medicaid coverage to able-bodied adults. But their votes on the program, which has been rebranded Arkansas Works by Governor Hutchinson, are now on opposite ends. In 2013, former Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe and a bipartisan group of lawmakers voted to expand the state's Medicaid program to adults earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. The Affordable Care Act-enabled program helped Arkansas lead the nation in reducing its uninsured rate. But it's also divided the GOP caucus ever since.

King has always opposed Medicaid expansion. Up until recently, Ballinger did, too. But he's made a tactical switch, deciding to support the program on the condition that leadership pursure new restrictive policies on Medicaid access for able-bodied people. King has not been shy about criticizing fellow Republicans. King told this reporter in 2016 after a floor debate, "I don't want to go off like a pro wrestler but we all ran on stopping Obamacare and yet we are voting to expand Obamacare. It's hypocritical and someone needs to call them out on it."

Ballinger is certainly not a Medicaid expansion fan, but he's decided to deal with his minority position differently. At the creation of the program, Ballinger cast his vote as a no. In the years since he's piled up no votes, tried to decouple the Medicaid expansion appropriation from the overall state Department of Human Services budget and has offered unsuccessful legislation to phase out the program. Ballinger even voted against Hutchinson's rebranding of the private option to Arkansas Works.

But in March, in the 2018 fiscal session, Ballinger voted yes on the DHS/Medicaid expansion funding bill. He decided to go down a different legislative road from King's.

"I realize that ending expansion to able-bodied working adults is not going to happen overnight. ... As long as the trajectory is narrowing the program, then it makes it less prohibitive to support the DHS appropriation," Ballinger said in a recent interview. (King declined to be interviewed.)

Hutchinson inherited Medicaid expansion. Without it, he argues, the state's budget would be imperiled, rural hospitals sent over the brink and hundreds of thousands of low-income people cast into uncertainty. But in his first term, Hutchinson has also acted to curtail enrollment.

He's secured a federal waiver from President Trump's administration to add work-related requirements for some to continue coverage. Hutchinson's long-term, state-controlled block grant funding vision for the program promises future moves to restrict coverage. He's tried, but has thus far been unsuccessful, to scale back beneficiaries' income eligibility from 138 percent of the federal poverty level to 100 percent.

King sees these efforts as window dressing and avoidance of the hard task at hand — ending the Affordable Care Act in any form. He's offered several pieces of legislation that have failed to clear committee that sought to end the program entirely.

Social issues

Both King and Ballinger can be relied on to support efforts to restrict access to abortion in Arkansas. They also generally share a worldview, which they say is based on religion, that opposes state constitutional civil rights protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.

In 2015, Ballinger notably took a lot of heat in the media — and directly in his face at the state Capitol — when he shepherded the passage of the state's Religious Freedom and Restoration Act. It's popularly characterized as a law to allow a cake decorator the right to refuse to help facilitate a same-sex wedding. Ballinger says it "allows a person to believe what they want to believe without government interference unless there's a good reason."

It drew criticism from major businesses, from Walmart to NASCAR, and filled the Capitol hallways with boisterous protestors. The measure was ultimately amended to more closely mirror an existing federal law. King didn't opt to vote for or against the original HB 1228 or its amended cousin. He let his tally fall into the "present not voting" category. By that point the legislation was so watered down even liberal Little Rock Sens. Joyce Elliott and Linda Chesterfield voted for it.

The 2018 Arkansas Voters Guide compiled by the Family Council shows King and Ballinger lining up on nearly every issue. Both support health professionals being able to opt-out of non-emergency treatments that might violate their religious beliefs and both are in favor of banning transgender people from using restrooms that correspond with their gender identity.

Ballinger sees King's approach as a fatal flaw undermining his ability to be an effective legislator. "He's butted his head against the wall a long time and it has frustrated him. His governing style is one of frustration."

Ballinger, a lawyer, is in his third term in the House and chairs the House State Agencies Committee. King, a farmer at Triple K Farms, served three terms in the House and is seeking a third in the Senate. The Republican primary winner will face Democrat Jim Wallace and Libertarian Lee Evans.


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