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Governor proposes more spending on charter schools and school vouchers

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 12:48 PM PST

Times are tight for most government services in Arkansas. Gov. Asa Hutchinson is building up a huge rainy day fund for future tax cuts, corporate welfare handouts and the like. But some special interests get money.

Special ed kids in real public schools? No.

More parole officers? No.

A functional school voucher program in which the well-to-do can transfer money that otherwise would be paid in taxes to private school tuition? Yes, perhaps $5 million a year worth.,

More taxpayer money to pay for charter school buildings? Yes. Yes. Yes. The Joint Budget Committee agenda for tomorrow has new spending requests from the governor. They include an increase from $5 million to $6.5 million next year for charter school facilities because of the growth in students attending open enrollment charter schools. It doesn't say who the lucky recipients will be. But the state is doing all it can to encourage charter school growth in Little Rock, for one, to the detriment of the school district it took over from local taxpayers and residents.

Still more voucher money? Yes. Yes. Yes. The Joint Budget requests include moving up spending on the so-called Success Scholarships from $1.3 to $1.54 million. This program gives state money to families to send their children to private schools, ostensibly for special needs, but they need not demonstrate that local school districts do not meet that need nor must they demonstrate much by way of competence to the school they prefer.

Monday, Monday

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 12:34 PM PST

Here's the Monday open line, plus headlines and comment.

Jan Morgan files for governor in Republican primary

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 11:05 AM PST

Jan Morgan, the Hot Springs gun range owner, made her gubernatorial candidacy official today, filing for the Republican primary against incumbent Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

She'd urged supporters to meet on the Capitol steps at 11:30 a.m. But, instead, she pulled up in a red Dodge Ram, idled by the car for 15minutes with the steps empty, and walked into the Capitol  to file.

After filing, she took about 10 minutes of questions with some now familiar answers.

She labeled Hutchison a "progressive," called (with few specifics) for lower government spending and taxes, defended her ban of Muslims at her gun range and criticized media.

"People overwhelmingly told me was they wanted a choice. Certainly Republicans wanted a choice. And we're going to give them one," she said.

She complained of increases in spending by Hutchinson's administration. And claimed that folks are being "taxed into poverty" and businesses regulated out of business

"We are by income the poorest population in America, and yet we're the most heavily taxed," she said. "We've had an entire term to make significant progress in taking some of that tax burden off the backs of the people. That's what conservative leadership does. And we haven't seen that. In fact, we've seen tax increases. You've got what? A soda tax, a candy tax, an increased tire tax, a digital downloads tax. And now the governor's talking about, next year, proposing a $217 million gas tax hike. OK? The people have said: 'enough is enough. We're taxed enough already. It's time for change.'"

Asked specifically what she'd cut, Morgan said certain legislators were helping, some in secret. But she wouldn't list them. And while saying government was wastesful, she didn't give specific examples.

In defending her Muslim ban (which drew attention when she enforced it against some dark-skinned people who were not, it turned out, Muslims), she said operating "a private club, where people are handling lethal weapons within a couple feet of each other requires a higher level of discernment than your average coffee-donut shop." She said in government it's a "totally different ball game" and she would follow  "laws regulating religious liberty in this state."

Asked by AP reporter Andrew DeMillo if she's OK with a business discriminating based on religion, she responded: "Once again, Andrew, you miss what I said. I said that when you run a facility where people are handling lethal weapons within a couple feet of each other that requires a higher level of discernment. ... People are handling lethal weapons. I make no apologies for the rules and the decisions that I've made, and put in place, in order to make sure that people who are handling lethal weapons in my facility are in a safe environment."

A minute or so later, Morgan ended questioning and departed.

A proud namesake for Florida high school protesters

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 10:38 AM PST

Read this from Tampa newspaper: A column about the woman for whom Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was named.

It seems safe to guess the smart, brave, outspoken kids who are taking on the NRA after the slaughter at their high school would have Marjory Douglas standing with them if she were alive today.

She died at 108 after fighting to save the Everglades, for migrant laborers, for Cuban immigrants, for the ACLU, against the death penalty and lots more, particularly for the vote for women.

She penned countless columns deploring the hypocrisy of political leaders. Too many of them, she once wrote, run for office who were "obviously built to walk."

She also knew what it was like to be snubbed by state lawmakers, as were Douglas High students recently when state House representatives voted resoundingly against considering a ban on assault weapons. In 1917, after Douglas and sister suffragists returned from a fruitless lobbying trip to the state Capitol, she remarked: "We could have been talking to a bunch of dead mackerel, for all the response we got."

But Douglas was invigorated rather than dispirited. She returned to Tallahassee many more times to berate lawmakers for their inaction (they did not officially endorse a woman's right to vote until 1969). She never avoided a showdown with anyone. She could "take the heat," as she said when insults, slurs and lies were cast against her, because she believed deeply in her cause.
Great stuff. A spiritual leader for the kids if there ever was one.

Democrat announces for Bryan King's Senate seat

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 10:03 AM PST

First round of entertainment in Senate District 5 will be the Republican primary because incumbent Sen. Bryan King has said he's not retiring from office after all and he faces opposition from Republican Rep. Bullet Bob Ballinger.

Then comes the general election. Jim Wallace, a resident of rural Carroll County, has announced his Democratic candidacy for the seat. A release said Wallace, 60, is a political novice, but "He believes it's important to put non-politicians in government, regular folks who are not beholden to special interests and corporate lobbyists."

Wallace touts his community service — a firefighter and emergency responder for the Inspiration Point Volunteer Fire Department; an organizer of support for food pantries, board member of the Lane House after-school program and volunteer at Clear Spring School. He's a potter by trade and has operated Paradise Pottery since 1988. He cites health care, rural hospitals, food insecurity, the environment, renewable energy and the opioid and meth epidemics among interests.

More biography:
The father of two grown daughters, Olivia and Maija, and a four-year-old granddaughter, Wallace lives five miles west of Eureka Springs with his partner, Shannon Magee, and a menagerie of rescue animals including three dogs, four cats, two goats and a horse. He is a member of Unitarian Universalist Church in Eureka Springs. 
The district covers all of Madison County, most of Carroll County and parts of five other counties.

Rewritten casino amendment now seems to bring Southland, Oaklawn on board

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 09:05 AM PST

A group hoping to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2018 to legalize  more casinos in Arkansas and devote tax revenues to highways has submitted an altered proposal to the attorney general's office.

A significant change seems to have brought support from the existing casino duopoly at Southland Park in West Memphis and Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who reviews the popular name and ballot title of referred laws and amendments, rejected the first try.

The first proposal called for casinos in Jefferson and Crittenden counties and then one more from Miller, Mississippi, Pope, Union or White County.

The proposal now calls for one casino each in Jefferson and Pope Counties and then casinos "at or adjacent to" the existing racetrack casinos at Southland in West Memphis and Oaklawn in Hot Springs, with the permits specifically allocated to the corporations currently operating those casinos. In other words, local casino monopolies in Hot Springs and West Memphis would be written into the Arkansas Constitution for the two racetracks, which could have two casinos in each place. The casinos in Pope and Jefferson County would have to be within two miles of Russellville and Pine Bluff, respectively.

The amendment would end, at least at the new casinos, the sham "electronic games of skill" artifice by which Southland and Oaklawn added slot machines and electronic forms of standard casino games such as roulette and craps. No one challenged the proposition that these were "games of skill" as opposed to unconstitutional lotteries.

The amendment also would allow sports books at the casinos, subject to a change in federal law. It also would require successful applicants to have casino operation experience.

Oaklawn and Southland had been silent on this idea though there was a presumption that Oaklawn particularly might resist new competition. It is a stout supporter of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce which has taken a number of steps to prevent the Quapaw Tribe from opening a casino on tribal land it purchased near the Little Rock Port. Southland was in a different position. It has a legal casino only because it has parimutuel wagering on greyhound racing, a rapidly dying sport. The Southland casino has flourished. Dog racing is a marginal part of the operation. Together, the two existing casinos are taking in about $5 billion in wagering annually. Most of that is paid back to gamblers. 18 percent of net revenues are paid in state taxes, about $60 million for fiscal 2017.

The new proposal provides purse support for horse and greyhound racing at the tracks.

The news release says the amendment will enhance existing casinos and build bigger tourist attractions to compete with those in neighboring states.

"We have all witnessed in the past, election cycle after cycle, individuals and groups trying to do this the wrong way, " said Nate Steel, counsel for Driving Arkansas Forward. "This time, it's different because of the fact that we have amended our proposal based on the attorney general's feedback and resubmitted a fair and reasonable ballot measure. This allows the voters of Arkansas to expand the gaming industry in a smart and controlled manner by establishing a pathway forward for our state for years to come. In response to the attorney general's comments, we have identified two specific counties in Arkansas that would be eligible for a casino license. Those licenses would be awarded through a merit-based process."

In addition, after meetings with interested stakeholders, Driving Arkansas Forward is including expanded gaming at Oaklawn and Southland. The two entities are established, recognized business leaders that have already demonstrated their merit and benefit to the state's economy.
I have asked for reaction from Southland and Oaklawn. The strong suggestion seems to be that they are on board, particularly a promise that word is coming soon if additional financial supporters on the ballot committee. If the tracks are on board, it means financial support for a necessary petition drive and for passage of the amendment. Oaklawn has fought past casino proposals, except one of its own that failed at the polls. Oaklawn and Southland sued to knock a casino amendment off the ballot in 2016.

Here's the full rewritten proposal.

Fake news about 'crisis actors' is old news, see Little Rock 1957

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 07:28 AM PST

When Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) joined in the fake Facebook meme about use of "actors" to portray Florida high school students, he was following in a long tradition of baloney, often tinged with bigotry.

From the Washington Post:

Sixty-one years before teens at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., would survive a mass shooting only to be labeled "crisis actors," the nine African American teens who braved racist crowds to enroll in Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas were also accused of being impostors.

False rumors that the Little Rock Nine were paid protesters even forced the NAACP to issue a statement condemning the stories as "pure propaganda." The students were not, in fact, "imported" from the North, said the NAACP's Clarence A. Laws, but rather the children of local residents, including veterans.
Kevin Kruse, a Princeton history professor, first pointed out the parallel between Florida and efforts to detract from the courage of the Little Rock Nine. His Tweet went viral.

But the practice of dismissing witnesses to major historical events as mere paid actors goes back much further than the Little Rock Nine.

"It's a theme that crops up throughout civil rights history," said Kruse. "Back then, it was an assumption that African Americans in the South couldn't possibly be upset. They must have been stirred up from the outside, either paid to do this or inspired to do this by propaganda. They couldn't have come up with this on their own.

The slur was used when former slaves testified before Congress after the Civil War. It was used when blacks testified against the Ku Klux Klan. The attempt at misdirection was used repeatedly during the civil rights years of the 1960s, including a cry of hoax about the disappearance of three civil rights workers eventually found slain.

Dismissal of the civil rights people is analogous to the cries of fakery about Parkland, Fla.

"It's the same idea," [historian Heather] Richardson said. "That anybody who doesn't agree with establishment politics must have no agency, be corrupt or not understand what they are doing."

Alan Clark and other NRA defenders won't accept that many people, even in Arkansas, see things differently. They prefer to believe they have no agency. November might disprove that to some of them.

A good guy with a gun: Shot by police

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 05:56 AM PST

A cautionary tale from Amarillo, Texas, about putting more guns in public places, including school classrooms, for safety.

A man with a gun was holding about 100 people hostage in a church. Police were called. Meanwhile, congregants wrestled the man to the ground and one of them grabbed his gun. The Houston Chronicle reports:

Officers entered the building and saw the churchgoer holding the gun and opened fire, according to the Amarillo Police Department. The churchgoer was hospitalized in stable condition.
The injured man was sanguine, by the way:

"There were other people there," Tony Garces said. "I just took the gun away from him. I got shot. I got the bad part. It's life."
Or, sometimes, death.

Alert: Buffalo River power play looming at legislature

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 05:43 AM PST

The Arkansas legislative budget session seems likely to end on schedule in mid-March with little fanfare, apart from some special interest legislation for a voucher-like program to transfer state tax money to private school tuition. Special ed kids? More parole officers? Can't afford those things.

But the bigger news is what's in store for the special legislative session to be called immediately after this session's end — good news for legislators like Sen. Trent Garner, who run up handsome untaxed per diem payments for lurking at the Capitol doing mischief year-round.

One battle is well-known: What will the legislature do to address pharmacists' unhappiness about reimbursement rates for those covered by the Medicaid expansion program, particularly those (most of them) covered by Arkansas Blue Cross, which uses CVS as manager of pharmacy reimbursements. Druggists say they are losing money on many prescriptions and CVS is giving better deals to its own pharmacies. Proposals are floating, but a solid, specific solution hasn't yet emerged. The irony of a Republican governor and legislature looking for new ways to regulate the private insurance business is an entertaining feature of the debate. Pharmacists, too, tend to normally fall on the conservative, anti-government end of the spectrum.

But I'm burying the lead. Word comes that the powerful Arkansas Farm Bureau is lining up votes for legislation to override a state  finding that denied a new permit for the C and H Hog Farm (correction the ruling came from ADEQ director, not administrative judge) in the Buffalo River watershed in Newton County. The Farm Bureau sees the shutdown of C and H, still operating on appeal, as the first step down a slippery slope for others.

How do you override the ruling without effectively ending Department of Environmental Quality review in general? Good question. Or maybe that's the idea.

The scheme reportedly includes a sop — money to continue University of Arkansas studies of effects of the hog operation on pollution in the Buffalo and its tributaries. Factory hog farm advocates contend the science shows the farm isn't harming the Buffalo. The groups fighting the hog farm say otherwise. They think the UA researchers are beholden to the agriculture industry (Tyson Foods is a major benefactor of the agri department) and that the research to date has eliminated as "outliers" findings of increased pollution in water following heavy rain, a time when field-spread hog waste is most likely to cause runoff of pollutants and an important data point for studying stream pollution. If they ever get a hearing, environmental advocates have scientists of their own. But the legislative action could nullify future hearings.

Can the Farm Bureau be stopped? It's rare. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has reportedly acquiesced to the hog farm decision override in a special session if the backers can demonstrate two-thirds support, the vote needed to broaden the call of a special session. They may be close to having those votes in hand, according to my source in the environmental community.

If they succeed, does it open the door to an explosion of factory hog farming in the Buffalo River watershed and other sensitive locations?

UPDATE: I received this response on the rumors from Steve Eddington, vice president for public relations at the Farm Bureau:

I tracked down our government affairs folks on this, and they have affirmed that we continue to explore a variety of ways to defend the property rights of Arkansas farmers and ranchers and to protect the livelihood of the families of C&H Hog Farm. However, as this process is ongoing, we will not discuss any specific details at this time.

Opponents have a talking point:

C and H feeds hogs owned by a Brazilian conglomerate to produce pork to sell in China.

Brazil gets the dollars. China gets the pork chops. Arkansas and the Buffalo River get the hog shit.

Yes, C and H Hog Farm does create jobs. Somebody has to slop, and then shovel after, those 6,000 hogs. It's no small task — millions of gallons of urine and feces.

Medical marijuana madness unfolds Tuesday

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 05:09 AM PST

The state Medical Marijuana Commission will reveal Tuesday its five picks among 95 applicants to grow marijuana for sale as medicine in Arkansas.

If chaos, conspiracy theories and legal confusion don't immediately follow, count me surprised. The same for when the commission picks 32 applicants for dispensary licenses.

Chaos and conspiracy theories? Consider that a shadowy outside group has been working for weeks — at some great effort and, I'd guess, some expense — to compile a detailed analysis of all the interlocking relationships, political allies and big money that you can find throughout the applicants and regulatory process for the marijuana business in Arkansas.  That group has predicted winners of the cultivation lottery by emphasizing marquee names — two significant family fortunes, one former attorney general, one former state senator, one lawyer with ties to both Gov. Asa Hutchinson and former Gov. Mike Beebe.  The group won't name what significant forces backs ITS research and prognostication.

But be assured, the race by losers to suggest undue influence will be immediate.

Then comes the crazier question, outlined in an article in today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette by Hunter Field. Despite clear statutory authority to appeal commission decisions to circuit court, that avenue seems unavailable  thanks to the so-far inscrutable decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court to outlaw lawsuits against the state except for illegal or unconstitutional actions. Sovereign immunity means the state cannot be sued in its courts, period, the court seems to have ruled. Circuit Judge Mackie Pierce has already dismissed one medical marijuana lawsuit on that basis.

What WAS the Arkansas Supreme Court thinking when it voted 5-2 to upend precedent and say there's no action of the state, legislative or executive, that can be challenged in court? They neutered themselves. We no longer have a three-legged stool of government in Arkansas. One wonders, only half-jokingly, how criminal defendants can sue the state on appeal except on constitutional issues. Crazy as it seems, I think lower court judges have no choice for the time being but to assume the full breadth of the decision. This problem is exactly what Justices Karen Baker and Jo Hart wrote would ensue in their dissent to the majority finding on sovereign immunity.

The business of dispensing a product that the federal government views as illegal already was fraught with difficult legal issues. Is it really the case that we now can't look to the courts to settle them?

How about duels?

Libertarian Party fields slate of candidates

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 05:09 AM PST

The Libertarian Party of Arkansas held its nominating convention recently and came up with a slate of 33 candidates for state and local political office.

The top race is that for governor. If the party gets 3 percent of the vote in the race, it automatically qualifies for a place on the ballot as a political party along with the Republican Party and Democratic Party. Otherwise, it must gather petition signatures.

Here's the Libertarian slate, some familiar from past elections:

Governor- Mark West
Lt. Governor- Frank Gilbert
Secretary of State- Christopher Olson
Attorney General- Kerry Hicks
Auditor of State- David Dinwiddie
Commissioner of State Lands- TJ Campbell
U.S. House 1- Elvis Presley
U.S. House 2- Joe Swafford
U.S House 3- Michael Kalagias
U.S. House 4- Tom Canada
AR State Senate 5- Lee Evans
AR State Senate 8- William Hyman
AR State Senate 10- Bobbi Hicks
AR State Senate 17- Kevin Vornheder
AR State Representative 15- Wayne Willems
AR State Representative 17- Greg Maxwell
AR State Representative 30- Mitchell Fenton
AR State Representative 35- Bill Barger
AR State Representative 46- Drew Tanner
AR State Representative 67- Sandra Richter
AR State Representative 77- Stephen Edwards
AR State Representative 80- Casey Copeland
AR State Representative 87- Justin Jones
Benton County Judge- Ronnie Smith
Benton County Justice of the Peace 3- Trina Wilson
Benton County Justice of the Peace 7- Joseph Bollinger
Benton County Justice of the Peace 8- Jeff Wadlin
Benton County Justice of the Peace 9- Cody Martin
Benton County Justice of the Peace 12- Jacob Faught
Jefferson County Justice of the Peace 1- James Hood
Pulaski County Justice of the Peace 12- Jacob Deaver
Craighead County Constable- Chris Lutterloh
Pulaski County Constable- Mark Phillips

Political filing continues today at the Capitol.

Asa gets gun time with Donald Trump, opens door to arming teachers

Posted: 25 Feb 2018 03:24 PM PST

The Sunday open line includes the topic du jour — guns.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a champion of the NRA and thus an improbable target of Republican primary opponent Jan Morgan's even more rabid love of guns, was on a CBS morning show today and said afterward that he'll be talking about guns later this week with Donald Trump.
Take that, Annie Oakley Morgan.

I'm guessing that session won't produce a raft of gun-control legislation. But I bet it WILL produce more talk about putting more people in schools with guns. As I noted earlier this week there was a time Hutchinson favored more guns in school, but NOT in the hands of classroom teachers. Hutchinson hasn't gone Trumpian on arming teachers just yet, but he has opened the door farther than he's gone before. So thanks a heap, Jan, for that.

Hutchinson, however, said there needs to be "flexibility" when it comes to addressing the issue of arming teachers in schools.

"Let me emphasize, there has to be some flexibility here. I've always said that teachers should teach and others should protect," said Hutchinson.

"There are some teachers who, whenever they're looking at options and they've got the training and they've got the temperament and they've, they've done what's necessary," he added. "And if they want to be able to have a protection and be armed with that training I think that's a prerogative that they should have as well."

On Face the Nation, Hutchinson was already taking up Trump's call the guns-in-school was a state issue. He noted that some Arkansas schools already have put armed staff in schools after security guard training.

Asd Twitter reminded us today, there was a time Wayne LaPierre, the lead mad dog at the NRA, said in 1999 guns were unacceptable in schools, period.

LaPierre was talking in 1999 mostly about students, but he added:

LaPierre made a passing reference to armed guards in schools, referring to "the rare exception of law enforcement officers or trained security personnel." As for arming teachers, something President Donald Trump has shown a keen interest in, LaPierre said nothing.
And speaking of guns, you should like a video from writer Jason Taylor of an AR-15, a gun available for instant purchase , equipped with a bump stock also readily available for purchase, even by someone who's merely 18 and even has a misdemeanor domestic battery conviction in Arkansas. You just never know when you might need to rip off a hundred highly deadly rounds to fend off a crazed buck or something.