U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., visited El Dorado Tuesday morning for a roundtable discussion with local industry leaders.
Representatives from Murphy Oil, Cross Oil, LANXESS, Canfor, Conifex, Munoco, Potlatch/Deltic, El Dorado Chemical and South Arkansas Community College were present to listen and ask questions about the current happenings in Washington, D.C. and the effect on Arkansas.
Cotton started the discussion with an update about recent and upcoming actions taken by the Senate.
“I think it’s been an exciting time in Washington – you could say that – over the last 18 months,” he said. “But more importantly than what’s happening in Washington is the impact it’s been having in the country and our state.”
Cotton said economic growth has been faster in the past year than it had been in the previous 10. He said Arkansans have already begun to see the benefits of the Trump administration, including tradespeople with rising wages and the average Arkansan who he says will see a reduction of about $1,200 in their tax bills next year.
“We’ve had a lot of changes, a lot of changes for the better that helps working folks and the state of Arkansas,” he said.
Arkansas ranks 48th in the nation in wages, though in December 2017, wages in the state had grown by about 2.5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a nonpartisan think tank, in 2019 all but the richest 5 percent of Arkansans will receive tax breaks ranging from .7 percent to 1.6 percent decreases; the top 5 percent will receive breaks ranging from 2.3 percent to 3.3 percent. However, individual tax breaks are set to expire in 2025, and the lowest earners are expected to start paying more in taxes than they did prior to the tax bill’s passage by 2027.
“I’d be happy to make them permanent,” Cotton said of the individual tax breaks. “I support legislation that would make them permanent, but I think for the next seven years, Arkansans can be happy that they’re going to get more than $1,000 a [year] back in their pockets because of that tax bill.”
The Trump administration has also reportedly been considering a capital gains tax cut. Cotton said he would support a measure that corrected tax bills for inflation.
“What it would do is adjust for inflation the assets that people hold,” he said. “I think capital gains, like everything else the federal government does, should be adjusted for inflation.”
Cotton also talked about health care and the changes that have been made during the Trump administration. He said insurance rates are increasing at the lowest rate they have been since the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
From 2017 to 2018, the average premium for the second-lowest cost silver plan (a mid-tier insurance plan) in Arkansas increased 21 percent, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2015, premiums for the same plan in Union County decreased by between 1 and 5 percentage points, according to the Henry Kaiser Family Foundation.
“In fact, I think that’s going to continue to get better as the [Trump] administration gives people more flexibility to get plans that are tailored for them that don’t necessarily comply with some of the silly mandates of Obamacare,” Cotton said.
He also mentioned a provision he helped to get into the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the repeal of the ACA’s individual mandate.
“He said ‘I love it, Tom. I love it.’ [Then] he said, ‘Actually, I think I love it. Let me check to make sure I love it.’ Which, you know, is not exactly in keeping with some of the way his opponents portray him, as rash and impulsive and not being deliberative,” Cotton said, describing the first conversation he had with President Donald Trump about repealing the mandate.
Cotton also defended tariffs imposed on China, as well as allies in the European Union, Canada and Mexico, as showing strength.
“It shows the world that we are not going to be played as patsies anymore. We’re going to strike tough-minded deals,” he said.
He predicted that the incoming administration in Mexico would be willing to negotiate soon after the transfer of power has been completed. He said once Mexico has come to the bargaining table, striking a deal with Canada would be easier.
“In the short-term, as more tariffs are implemented, it’s hard to predict exactly how they’ll play out, but what we want to do in the long-term is make it easier for our ranchers and our farmers and our foresters to sell their products overseas, and I know that’s what the president’s focused on,” he said.
Cotton said the tariffs represent leverage with which the U.S. can better negotiate future trade deals, which he says will help all Americans. As consumer good prices rise in Arkansas and elsewhere, Cotton said the most important way the federal government can protect consumers is by negotiating better deals with our trading partners.
“I think the most important way to protect them in the long run is to get better trade deals, because that’s what, in the end, is going to bring down prices for everyone,” he said.
He did not elaborate on what a better trade deal might look like.
Cotton said the trade dispute with China is more adversarial than with countries like Canada and Mexico. He said China has been fighting a trade war with the U.S. for decades, as well as building their military.
“China views itself as a country that was unjustly treated by the West for centuries and now it’s returning to a place of power,” he said.
After the update, Cotton opened the floor for questions. Several were focused on the upcoming midterm elections, which Cotton said he was optimistic about.
“They’re going to be tough. Midterms usually are tough for the party who’s in control of the White House,” he said. “However, I do feel good about [Republican’s] Senate chances.”
He explained that several Democratic senators from red states and swing states that voted for Trump in 2016 are up for re-election. He was, however, less confident about the House of Representatives, saying it is a toss up whether the House remains red or turns blue.
Cotton also addressed presidential appointments, saying that while Trump has had plenty of judges go through the appointment procedure successfully, executive appointments have been harder to complete. Cotton blamed the lack of appointments on Democrats; however, in June, candidates had not been named for 204 of the 665 positions that require Senate confirmation.
“We just confirmed, last week, our 26th judge to the court of appeals. To give you a sense of scale, that’s about 1 out of every 7 court of appeals judge in just 18 months,” he said. “So imagine what we’ll do for the next six months, and hopefully, if we hold on to the Senate, for the next two years.”
One person asked about Trump’s proposed “Space Force.” Cotton said that it could take one of several forms, perhaps as its own military branch or as a service within another branch (like the Marine Corps being part of the Navy).
“Space is a very critical war-fighting domain,” Cotton said, adding that the function would be defensive, protecting military and commercial satellites and spacecraft, as well as offensive, counteracting spacecraft from China and Russia.
Cotton also discussed plans for a future infrastructure bill, which he said has been held up by Democrats trying to wait out the midterm elections in hopes of having more influence over the bill’s language. Cotton said he supports interstate (carried between states) investments, like roads, highways and bridges, primarily. He said he thinks intrastate (occurring within the boundaries of one state) investment, like mass transit, should be left to municipalities and counties.
“I’m focused more on the kind of truly interstate and regional impacts, so that’s what I’d like to see in Arkansas. But also, I think we need to think more broadly about infrastructure as well. … You’ve got to think about things like rural broadband and the water system as well. They’re really important for the way we live in rural Arkansas,” he said.
Cotton praised the Murphy Arts District, saying it looked like people in El Dorado were “having more fun” than anyone else in the state. He also said El Dorado has a good model for workforce development, specifically with the recent opening of SouthArk’s Advanced Manufacturing Training Center.
“You’re training workers for your local economy,” he said. “So working with local businesses, understanding the exact skills they’ll need, which will vary, you know, by region, certainly across the country, I think is the best model for local workforce development.”
Cotton will return to Washington next week. For the remainder of the week, he will be travelling the state to speak with constituents.
Caitlan Butler can be reached at 870-862-6611 or firstname.lastname@example.org.