NORTH LITTLE ROCK — Former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, currently seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, defended his position on abortion Wednesday and said he would have vetoed a bill to require voters to show photo identification at the polls.
Ross also called the state lottery, which was the brainchild of Ross’ chief political rival, "a tax on the poor."
At campaign stops around the state last week, Ross criticized Republicans in the Legislature for pushing legislation that he said amounted to "attacks on women and families" and said he would have done as Gov. Mike Beebe did in vetoing two Republican-sponsored bills imposing new restrictions on abortion.
The Legislature overrode the governor’s vetoes of the bills, one of which bans most abortions at 20 weeks and the other at 12 weeks. The American Civil Liberties Union has already filed a lawsuit challenging the 12-week ban.
Former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, Ross’ Democratic rival in the governor’s race, and others have pointed out that as a congressman Ross voted for a bill that would have banned abortions at 20 weeks. The bill included no exceptions for rape or incest, making it more restrictive than the 20-week ban that the Legislature approved and that Ross said he would have vetoed.
Talking to reporters during a campaign stop Wednesday at the headquarters of the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, Ross defended his comments.
"I am personally opposed to abortion. I am opposed to state and federally funded abortions," he said. "But from a public policy perspective, I believe, just like Gov. Beebe, that it should be safe, legal and rare, period. The point I was making in my speech is that our Legislature only meets for about 100 days every other year in regular session, and they spent way too much time this session debating the divisive social issues of the past that have largely been decided by the courts."
Ross predicted that the state will have to spend "millions of dollars" to defend the new abortion bans and that they "will be struck down as unconstitutional."
"Millions" is a higher cost than Beebe has predicted. When he vetoed the bills, he noted that in 1999 a state abortion law was successfully challenged and that the state ultimately had to pay the prevailing plaintiffs’s attorneys’ fees and costs, which totaled about $150,000.
Ross said governors and members of Congress have to approach bills differently.
"When you’re in Congress, you’re casting thousands of votes," he said. "When you’re governor, you’re leading the state. You’re not casting votes. As governor, you’ve got to look at every piece of legislation, and if you know it’s not constitutional then you don’t need to be signing it."
Ross was asked if his comments meant he had voted for an unconstitutional bill in Congress.
"I cast thousands of votes in Congress, thousands of votes," he said. "And I’ve stood before the voters after each of those votes and I’ve been overwhelmingly re-elected by the voters. I’m humbled by that."
Ross also said he is focused on building on the foundation that Beebe has built in education and economic development. He said that if Halter "wants to spend this entire campaign picking apart my votes from the past, he can do that."
Halter said Wednesday that Ross’ comments show that "clearly he voted for an unconstitutional bill as a congressman." He said Ross also voted twice to defund Planned Parenthood, which he said would have denied women access to important health services such as cancer screenings.
"Only in Washington do you get to say one thing and do completely another," Halter said.
Another bill that Beebe vetoed during the session — a veto that also was overridden by the Legislature — requires voters to show photo ID at the polls. Ross said Wednesday he also would have vetoed the bill.
"I think all it does is discourage people from voting," he said. "I don’t understand the reason for it. If people are registered to vote, they ought to be able to vote."
Ross also was asked about his thoughts on the state lottery. Halter led the drive to put the lottery on the ballot in 2008 and often is referred to as the father of the Arkansas lottery.
Ross said he voted against the lottery five years ago because he considered it a tax on the poor. He said he believes it has not lived up to the promises that Halter made, noting that the Legislature has twice reduced scholarship amounts in order to keep the program solvent.
But Ross also said that "obviously it’s something that I’m supportive of us keeping to … help our children afford to go to college. I respect the wishes of the voters."
Halter said the scholarship amounts have been reduced only because the demand for them has exceeded legislators’ projections.
"If he had his way, it would be zero dollars," Halter said.
Former U.S. Rep Asa Hutchinson and Little Rock businessman Curtis Coleman are seeking the Republican nomination for governor. Beebe is prevented by term limits from seeking a third term next year.