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Monday: An open line and news roundup

Posted: 12 Feb 2018 12:38 PM PST

Here's the open line. Also, the roundup of headlines and comment.

RiverFest reborn: expect country music and kiddie rides

Posted: 12 Feb 2018 12:33 PM PST

Welcome the new RiverFest — now headed by Universal Fairs of Memphis and the Riverfest Organization. You can expect country music, kiddie rides at the "large Ford Family Fun Zone," and a return to Memorial Day Weekend.

Universal Fairs outlined it's version of Riverfest today at a press conference at the Riverfest Amphitheater downtown. The festival, which had previously been run by a non-profit, closed due to financial concerns in 2017 after a 40-year run.

Now, Universal Fairs is "very confident" they can steer it into a sustainable direction. Not by abandoning all the traditions, said Jack Daniels, event director for Universal Fairs, but by shedding some of "traditions you have to keep up" when running an institution.

It's not a change so much as "doing Riverfest differently," said Daniels, stressing they have "good feelings between the previous operators," as a chance to "stop and reboot."

RiverFest will still pull in a mix of local, regional and national music. Likely country and rock music, genres in which Universal Fairs can leverage their relationships from the  state fairs they run (the Delta State Fair, the Virginia State Fair, the Georgia State Fair).

Add to that a more fair-like atmosphere: the before mentioned Ford Family Fun Zone with adult and kiddie rides, a Disney star for kids, and, of course, beer will continue.

You'll also see an end to River Bucks (meaning you'll be able to use cash or credit cards now to buy beer) and the closing of President Bill Clinton Boulevard (it'll stay open for business).

"[We're still] debating the fireworks," said Daniels.

Early tickets, starting in March and running for the rest of the month, can be bought for $30 for the whole weekend. Prices for tickets at the gate have not yet been determined. They'll "probably be a little bit more," said Daniels, but will not climb into the triple digits.

The music will be announced the first week of April, with four to six national "names you know," Daniels said. "Not a long list of sort-of known names."

They're inking some of those deals now but Daniels said they were saving them for a launch event in early April.

Even with late timing booking, Little Rock's location — with the various highways that run through this city — give Daniels confidence. In some ways, it helps; many performers have a set schedule, already planning to be in Memphis or St. Louis on close dates, and can easily come to RiverFest.

Daniels said that if they got a crowd between 10,000 and 20,000 a day for the weekend they'd be happy. In fact, they'd "tickled pink with that," he told reporters. In years past, crowd totals have been put near 250,000 for the three days.

Fun with numbers: Asa's mythical tax cut

Posted: 12 Feb 2018 12:28 PM PST

Gov. Asa Hutchinson's legislative opening speech had little to offer with one exception: His "free beer tomorrow" gambit.

To applause, he announced his desire to cut the top marginal income tax rate — in 2019 from 6.9 to 6 percent. That rate kicks in at $35,000 (the same as a couple making $70,000 filing separately on the same return.) He said it would be a $180 million tax cut, the biggest ever, something approaching a 3 percent cut in state revenues.

It is easy to promise tax cuts when you won't have to deliver until after your next election.

Also worth noting: this tax cut would be an enormous windfall to a tiny handful of the very rich while giving nothing to anyone reporting taxable income below $35,000.

Some middle income would benefit. But the rich? Woo boy.

For example: In 2013, the most recent year I can get from DFA, about 670 returns reported taxable income of $1 million or more. They paid cumulative state income taxes of about $170 million. Reduce the top tax rate to 6 percent on those earnings and you're talking a savings of $22 million for those 670 people, or about $32,000 each. Less than 1 percent of taxpayers would get 12 percent of the tax cut.

Something like $100 million in tax cuts would go to those making more than $100,000 — though they account for only about 39,000 of more than 1 million tax returns. Middle income? Not exactly.

Mike Lee enters West Little Rock legislative race

Posted: 12 Feb 2018 11:58 AM PST

Mike Lee, a semi-retired engineer and lawyer, said today that he'll make a Democratic challenge to Republican Rep. Andy Davis for House District 31 in western Little Rock.

A Hot Springs native and UA engineering grad, Lee returned to Little Rock 20 years ago after working at the Consumer Product Safety Commission. he teaches a products liability course at the UA-Little Rock law school.

Lee outlines a strong platform:

* Support for $10/hr. minimum wage.
* Increased access to pre-K education
* Better pay for teachers.
* More affordable higher education and a bigger state investment in UAMS, UA-Little Rock, and Pulaski Tech
* Affordable health care for "every American."
* Protection of clean air and water.
* Secure elections from voter intimidation and suppression and cyber-hacking.
* More transparency and closure of loopholes in campaign finance that allow dark money and multiple PACs to influence elections.

From his webpage:
For years, District 31 voters have been fed empty promises by smooth-talking politicians who vow to make our schools better, our healthcare affordable, our right to vote secure, and our paychecks bigger. They take an oath to serve the people, but only look out for special interests, big businesses, and elite campaign donors all the while hardworking Arkansas families struggle to make ends meet
.Davis' most recent campaign report showed more than $10,000 in contributions, mostly from PACs but also from billionaires Warren Stephens and Jim Walton. He's in the sewage treatment plant business and has used his legislative seat to guide legislation regulating that business.

Hutchinson opens legislative session with a pat on his own back

Posted: 12 Feb 2018 11:21 AM PST

Gov. Asa Hutchinson opened the legislature's budget system with an endorsement of his record since his first joint session talk three years ago — a tax cut, strong employment and other positives. "The state of our state is stronger than ever before."

He listed a number of specifics And he borrowed a page from presidential speeches singling out individuals aided by his efforts, such as the new state income tax break on military income to lure new Arkansas residents.

He pitched his work requirement for Medicaid "stringent" but not "punitive." He said it is aimed at putting people to work. If the government approves, the results will be interesting. Many think most able-bodied people ARE working already,

Hutchinson said the budget session was straightforward. He said his budget meets the needs of education, cuts cost of Medicaid and increases public safety spending. He also said it reduces dependence on one-time money for ongoing expenses. He touted a projected surplus of $64 million. He predicted a reduction in Medicaid spending of more than $800 million in five years. He didn't identify would jobs or services would pay for that savings.

For the future, Hutchinson said he wanted to reduce the income tax rate. He wants the top marginal rate cut from 6.9 to 6 percent. He says this should be done in 2019 session, helped by budgeting this year that saves money without reducing state services. Neat trick that.

The governor talked a lot about transforming government. But, from here, it looks about the same as always, if a little pinched here and there.

Dozens of appropriation bills were filed today. Rep. Bob Ballinger also filed a non-budget item. It would end a requirement that all firearms instructors be required to teach both the basic concealed carry course but also the new enhanced permit that allows holders to take guns more places, including college campuses. Some don't want to teach the new permit. It will require a two-thirds vote of both houses to consider the measure.

Also filed today were proposals to cut off enrollment in the Arkansas Works program of expanded Medicaid coverage at its level as of July 1.

Complaint brings Bible quotes down from Searcy High choral room

Posted: 12 Feb 2018 10:29 AM PST

The Freedom from Religion Foundation says Searcy High School has taken down Bible and religious quotes from a choral room in response to their complaint.

The Foundation, a nonprofit based in Wisconsin, acted in response to a complaint last fall from someone at the school, who supplied photos.

Last fall, it was brought to FFRF's attention that Searcy High School's choral director [Tina Niederbrach] had placed several Christian-themed posters on the walls of the high school chorus room. Most contained bible verses, including: Ephesians 5:19 ("Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord"); Colossians 3:14 ("Love binds us together in perfect harmony"); and Psalms 42:1 ("As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God"). Another poster displayed lyrics from the gospel song "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" ("Precious Lord take my hand, lead me on, let me stand").
The Foundation wrote Searcy School Superintendent Diane Barrett in November to warn that "public schools may not advance, prefer or promote religion." The display, wrote Colin E. McNamara, a lawyer for the foundation, "violates this basic constitutional prohibition by creating the appearance that the district prefers religion over nonreligion, and Christianity over all other faiths." The Foundation wrote a followup letter Jan. 25. Barrett response Feb. 2. Her letter said in full:

"In response to your letter dated January 25, 2018, the teacher removed the posters fro her room in November 2017, and staff were addressed as to religious displays."

The Foundation praised the response. From its release:

"A music room should not be a place of discord," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "We're pleased that the school has taken action to ensure that student chorus members of minority faiths and no religion feel equally welcome."

Hutchinson replaces controversial dental board appointee

Posted: 12 Feb 2018 09:27 AM PST

Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced today that he'd appointed Dr. Matthew McDonough of Jonesboro to the state Board of Dental Examiners, replacing Dr. Richard L. Smith of North Little Rock for a term ending Sept. 1, 2022.

Hutchinson just appointed Smith last fall, amid controversy.

The Arkansas Dental Association had recommended Dr. Lauren Harmon of Jonesboro for the opening, but Hutchinson chose Smith. The Association objected not only for being bypassed but because Hutchinson's choice had been disciplined by dental regulators for overprescribing narcotics, a case of incompetent practice and working while on license suspension.

At the time, the governor defended Smith and criticized "unnecessary attacks." Smith's regulatory troubles occurred in the 1990s, but they made for criticism because the governor had pushed in the 2017 session for legislation meant to curb overprescribing of narcotics.

I've asked the governor's office for more information about how the seat came to be open.

McDonough is a Jonesboro native and Arkansas State graduate who received his dental degree in 2007.

Arkansas State to sue Miami over lost football game income

Posted: 12 Feb 2018 09:12 AM PST

KAIT-TV in Jonesboro just tweeted that Arkansas State University intends to sue the University of Miami for $650,000 because Miami cancelled a September game with ASU in Jonesboro on account of Hurricane Irma.

An earlier report on this potential dispute by KAIT noted that the game contract, (shown in full at the link) allowed cancellation of the agreement if the game became impossible to play because of natural disaster. But ASU said at the time that Miami didn't make the trip because of potential problems in returning to Miami, not in traveling to Jonesboro. ASU also worked to play the game earlier.

'Four-wheeler riot' at country rap show in Garland County

Posted: 12 Feb 2018 06:51 AM PST

Country rap music. Alcohol. Arkansas. What could go wrong?

Raw Story reports.

It was a Ryan Upchurch show at Coles Off Road Park in Garland County. It reportedly was overbooked. People were not happy to be turned away. Upchurch wasn't happy either. He didn't play.

Hundreds of paid ticket-holders were refused entry to the concert, and they stormed off in their vehicles and wrecked street signs and fences along Mountain Pine Road.

"Small 4-wheelers through here, and trucks and trailers," said Gary Brown, who owns Guns and More next door to the park. "I love music more than anybody, but when it comes to this, it's too much."

Lininger said Garland County sheriff's deputies were unnecessarily confrontational as they told ticket holders to leave, but he managed to avoid arrest.

"Dude was rude as sh*t, pulled his f*cking baton on me and threatening me, got up in my motherf*cking face," Lininger said in a Facebook video posted the night of the concert. "I mean, dude let me out, I'll be real, he let me out — he didn't take me to jail. So for that, I really ain't mad."

Upchurch also uploaded a Facebook video after the concert and blamed the park for the mix-up and poor treatment of his fans.

"You think I'm going to get on stage, when I hear people running the park, cussing my fans out and turning them away," Upchurch said. "You done disrespected the wrong movement."
Dare I say it? White lives matter.

Facebook live video by unhappy drunk Upchurch fan is a must. NSFW.

Legislative budget session begins today: health care in the balance

Posted: 12 Feb 2018 05:38 AM PST

The Arkansas legislature convenes for a 30-day budget session at noon today, with a speech by Gov. Asa Hutchinson at 12:30 p.m. the signal event.

Hutchinson will be in a funny position. He'll be pitching the extension of the mostly federally funded expansion of Medicaid coverage at the same time promising to punish the shiftless welfare chiselers on the program with a stricter income qualification and a work requirement.

The feds haven't yet signed off on the rules changes Hutchinson wants that will allow him to throw 60,000 or so off the Medicaid roles and prove to the fringe supporting his Republican primary opponent, Jan Morgan, that he can be as ruthless as they are.

Except he can't. Because Hutchinson wants to keep the Medicaid expansion alive. while the hard right wants it strangled. The simple reason for Hutchinson's continued support is money. If the far-right takes Arkansas out of the Medicaid program, it will mean a net loss to the state of almost $90 million. You think the buget is tight now, with vital services going begging so that Hutchinson can pile up a reserve for a future income tax cut? See what would happen if the Medicaid infusion goes away, layoffs sweep the health care and related fields, rural hospitals close, poor folks turn to emergency rooms if they don't die for undiagnosed illnesses and lots more happy consequences.

The session, absent super-majority votes by both chambers for departure from script, is only about budget. But the key vote is for the human services budget that holds the Medicaid money. Three seats in the Senate are empty currently. 27 votes of the 35-seat Senate are necessary for passage, precisely the number it got in 2017. If the holdouts can't be offered enough special favors — and a couple of them seem to be asking for bids — then that budget might have to wait for a special legislative session after special elections fill the vacancies.

One more wrinkle: Pharmacists have raised a fearful din over tighter reimbursement policies for people covered by the Medicaid expansion. They claim they are losing money on filling many prescriptions. If their power is sufficient (and they are a powerful lobby) to force a higher expenditure on Medicaid it could be a big deal. It could make the program unsustainable, at least in the eyes of a governor not wanting to be seen as supportive of increases in government spending on poor people.

Joint Budget meets after adjournment. Among the items on its agenda is the Arkansas Supreme Court's request for payment of $135,000 in legal bills and authorization for $500,000 more in the Wendell Griffen lawsuit. The decision of some judges to hire outside counsel for themselves — including $86,000 in spending so far alone for Justice Courtney Goodson — seems likely to prompt a question or two.

No "scheduled events" — the euphemism for the end-around the nominal rule against free wining and dining of legislators — appears on the calendar today. First one listed is a free lunch Wednesday sponsored by the Arkansas Credit Union Association.

There will be others.

A mayor stands up against freeway widening. No. Not in Little Rock.

Posted: 12 Feb 2018 05:16 AM PST

The Indiana Department of Transportation sees a freeway tearing through the heart of Indianapolis and wants to see an even wider concourse of concrete.

Indianapolis Mayor Joseph Hogsett is pushing back against the highway builders' 60-year imperative to build ever more freeways that never solve traffic problems. He's written to the state about its $250 million plan (a shadow of the $600 million concrete gulch that the highway construction lobby — also known as the Arkansas Department of Transportation/Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce — wants in Little Rock.)

You can read his whole letter here. It says in part:

Peer cities such as Austin and Dallas, Texas, and Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio, have established national best practices, devising context-sensitive solutions to urban right-of-way challenges. I would encourage the state to consider at-grade alternatives that would sufficiently move traffic and meet INDOT's needs while reconnecting our neighborhoods and street grid. Such alternatives may have a residual benefit by potentially opening up valuable state-owned downtown right- of-way for development.
An article in Streetsblog notes:

Local architects and planners have another idea. Architect Mark Beebe and Indiana Landmarks President Marsh Davis have proposed two concepts for the highway right-of-way that would open up 10 acres of land for development and help heal some of the wounds the Interstate system inflicted on city neighborhoods when it was constructed in the 1960s and '70s.

They propose capping the highway with new development, a greenway, and a surface boulevard. Tolling would redirect some traffic to the city's outer belt, and freeway ramps that have posed big obstacles for local residents would be eliminated.
Yes, some visionaries have proposed similar alternatives to the 30 Crossing Concrete Gulch proposal for I-30 in Little Rock. They've been dismissed by the Little Rock mayor and city board, which are beholden to the construction-industry-controlled chamber of commerce, not to mention held captive by the regional cities that drive policy on Metroplan in a way detrimental to the region's largest city.

Oh well. Little Rock will be better for it, right? Who wants to be Indianapolis?

Oh, wait. Maybe you missed this recent article about Indianapolis being in the running for the second Amazon headquarters. Check the article: Booming population, pro teams, great universities, great international airport (nonstop to Paris), expanding transit system, great trail system for biking to work.  They're building a city. We build freeways to Cabot. Sign me:

Love, Little Rock.

The what-the? open line

Posted: 11 Feb 2018 03:14 PM PST

The Sunday open line. Can anyone tell me why the grocery store was slammed like a blizzard was coming?