- Politico ponders the deep mysteries of Sarah Huckabee Sanders
- Your open line and end of the week headlines
- State officials to appeal Voter ID ruling to state Supreme Court
- The shrinking Little Rock School District
- Fayetteville School Board retains outside counsel as investigation continues into sexual harassment claims against superintendent
- "Rally for the Rep" planned for next Tuesday
- University of Arkansas School of Law selects new dean
- Leslie Rutledge grandstands against Affordable Care Act in lawsuit that aims to strip coverage from millions of Americans
- Farm Sanctuary applauds new Turkey Trot sponsor's decision to ban throwing turkeys out of planes
- Ten Commandments rise again at Capitol, but Satanic Temple says Arkansas law is on its side
- Judge blocks Voter ID law with primaries set for next month
- Rutledge rejects proposed ballot initiative to increase minimum wage to $11
- UPDATE: Education Commissioner Key rejects Friendship charter’s push for expedited approval of plans
- Thursday's headlines and your open line
- Legislative task force to look at raising grocery tax, adding EITC relief for low-income workers; revenues from nixing sales tax exemptions slated for tax cuts
Posted: 27 Apr 2018 12:30 PM PDT
Here's a very long soft-focus profile of Sarah Huckabee Sanders from Jason Schwartz in Politico. It's called "The Puzzle of Sarah Sanders: How a bright, competent and likable young operative became the face of the most duplicitous press operation in White House history."
If you don't feel like reading this article, I'll give away the answer: There is no puzzle. She's an apparatchik. Her job is to speak untruths from power. Actually being effective at delivering propaganda generally requires being bright, competent, and likable. And like many bright, competent, and likable people, she enjoys being close to power. This is a boring thesis, but I think I've cracked the code.
Politico needs to flesh things out, so we get the hackneyed explanation that to truly understand Sanders you have to understand where she comes from. One good thing about this approach is it allows them to use an important photo of her father, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, in very short shorts and a headband.
There are tales of young Sarah tagging along with her pop to campaign at county fairs and eavesdropping at the kitchen table while the foul Dick Morris explained crosstabs. Spending even a few minutes in the family kitchen with Morris would ruin most human beings forever but Sarah was a hearty soul and soldiered on to become a deeply cynical political operative. It's just like "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
Schwartz laughably suggests that the stain to Sanders' credibility from lying constantly for Trump will interfere with getting big-money book deals or TV roles after she leaves her current gig. LOL. Meanwhile, Leslie Rutledge pops up and says that the chattering classes back home are wondering whether Sanders will come back to Arkansas and run for office.
Schwartz notes that Sanders seems rather indifferent to ideology and concludes that she is motivated by a loyalty to Trump in the same manner that she was once loyal to her daddy. This is a mildly creepy conclusion to reach, and unnecessarily complex. The simple explanation will suffice: She is a cynical political operative doing her job.
The Huckster sneaks in this vintage whine: "The print press in Arkansas were pretty slanted, and for the most part overwhelmingly pro-Democrat." Aw. We miss you, Mike.
Posted: 27 Apr 2018 12:19 PM PDT
Your headlines for April 27, 2018: Judge blocks Voter ID law with primaries set for next month; Ten Commandments rise again at Capitol, but Satanic Temple says Arkansas law is on its side; "Rally for the Rep" planned for next Tuesday; Margaret Sova McCabe has been tapped to be the new dean of the University of Arkansas School of Law.
Posted: 27 Apr 2018 11:33 AM PDT
Secretary of State Mark Martin and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge will appeal the injunction blocking the Voter ID law granted yesterday by Circuit Judge Alice Gray.
Both Martin, a defendant in the case, and Rutledge, representing the other defendant — the six-member state Board of Election Commissioners — filed notice today in Gray's court that they will appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.
Martin's office said in a statement that he is "an adamant proponent of voter ID." The statement said that the injunction would "chang[e] the rules in the middle of an election" and "create confusion for voters." It said that Martin strongly disagreed with Gray's ruling, though it didn't explain why or comment on the merits.
Gray's ruling came in response to a public interest lawsuit with Barry Haas as plaintiff and Jeff Priebe as his attorney, which asked Gray to enjoin use of the state's new voter ID law in the primary elections. The Arkansas Supreme Court held in a 2014 case (also argued by Priebe) that a previous version of the law was unconstitutional. The 2017 legislature altered the language in the law but the new lawsuit argues that it remains unconstitutional. The membership of the Supreme Court itself has changed quite a bit since the 2014 ruling so we'll see what happens, but Gray agreed with the plaintiffs.
In her opinion, Gray noted that no evidence was presented on the existence of voter fraud. She also batted down Rutledge's frothy argument that the lawsuit was barred by the new expanded interpretation of "sovereign immunity," the constitutional provision that the state may only be sued in its courts under certain narrow circumstances. If the sovereign immunity precedent superseded the constitution's rules on voting, it would seem that the state was asserting that the courts should offer no check at all to the state's government. Under that logic, the state could strip citizens of any and all constitutional rights and citizens would have no recourse. That's a sovereign with a level of immunity not traditionally imagined in American democracy. Gray stated in her opinion that the plaintiffs are alleging that the state is acting illegally in enforcing the Voter ID law, which remains an exception to sovereign immunity.
Martin and Rutledge will no doubt be asking the Supreme Court for an expedited response. Early voting in the state's May 22 primary begins May 7.
Here's Martin's full statement on the lovely letterhead that it deserves:
Posted: 27 Apr 2018 11:06 AM PDT
The Democrat-Gazette's Cynthia Howell on Friday reported that the Little Rock School District is set to lose about 80 more jobs, largely due to a decline in student enrollment by around 400 in the current 2017-18 school year. State data show the district's enrollment for this year is 22,759, down from 23,164 in 2016-17.
School districts are funded by the state on a per-pupil basis, so losing kids means losing revenue — and that means cutting staff.
LRSD Superintendent Mike Poore told the district's Community Advisory Board that the district needs to trim about $5.5 million from its budget for the upcoming 2018-19 school year, Howell wrote. The job cuts will include positions for 30 teachers, 20 paraprofessionals, 18 building-level administrators and a number of other central office and support staff outside of individual school campuses, including in IT, security, finance, maintenance and other roles. Twelve school improvement specialist positions will also be cut. The superintendent said most individuals losing their jobs can expect to be rehired in other positions within the LRSD.
I've asked the district for clarification on a few numbers and will add them when I get a response.
The new cuts coincide with a period of prolonged growth in open-enrollment public charter schools in Little Rock. Two major city operators in the city, eStem Public Charter Schools
Charters and the LRSD are in direct competition for students, and the LRSD's shrinking enrollment is partly a function of growing charter enrollment. However, it's hard to nail down the degree to which charter growth is responsible for the decline. One shouldn't conclude every child enrolled in a charter is necessarily taken from the LRSD. Some families drawn to charters may have been bound for private schools — or even drawn directly from them — and therefore do not necessarily constitute a net loss for the district. Of course, the fact that so many private school seats exist in the first place in Little Rock speaks to the city's history of segregation and the unpleasant reality that K-12 education in America is a tiered system with or without charters.
Still, there's no doubt that expanding charters make life harder for the Little Rock School District, which is why Poore, like his predecessor Baker Kurrus, urged the state Board of Education in September to put the brakes on charter expansion by denying the creation of yet more schools. The board refused to do so then, as it refused to do so when Kurrus asked in 2016. That's despite the fact that the state board — or really, the Education Department, which the board oversees — has controlled the district for over three years. It voted to take over the LRSD in January 2015 from its locally elected school board, citing low academic performance at a handful of LRSD campuses. Yet the state board has not followed the advice of the superintendents appointed to run the district when it comes to charter expansion.
Charter advocates honest about the implications of charter growth in Little Rock have acknowledged at times that more charter seats will lead to a smaller LRSD over time. Possibly, over the long term, that spells eventual disaster for the LRSD. Or possibly, there's a way for the district to shrink gracefully as its privatized competitors grow in size and scope. However, that's setting aside the fact that charters often draw a different cohort of students than the take-all-comers traditional public schools.
Meanwhile, the LRSD isn't giving up anytime soon. It continues to serve over 23,000 students, including some of the top high school grads in the state. Just this morning, the district announced a new partnership with the Clinton School of Public Service and ForwARd Arkansas, a public/private education initiative, to beef up project-based educational programs at LRSD middle schools.
Here's the press release on that partnership:
Unique Approach Aims to Boost Academic Achievement at LRSD Middle Schools
Posted: 27 Apr 2018 09:13 AM PDT
The Fayetteville School Board has retained Susan Keller Kendall as outside counsel in the wake of sexual harassment claims against superintendent Matthew Wendt, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports. Wendt is on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation. At the board meeting yesterday, interim superintendent John Colbert took Wendt's place. The board officially ratified the retention of Kendall; Missy McJunkins Duke, meanwhile, has been retained as outside counsel for the district. Wendt was not named specifically at the board meeting; these actions were described as relating to a "personnel matter."
From the Northwest Arkansas D-G's report:
Kendall will appear at board meetings when needed, Board President Justin Eichmann said. Duke will handle matters outside of [district general counsel Christopher] Lawson's normal duties, he said.The complaint against Wendt, made by a staffer, was first made in March, prompting an investigation by the district. According to an attorney representing the woman who lodged the complaint, Wendt made unwanted sexual advances and she experienced a hostile work environment. The allegations include stalking her home and threatening to withhold a raise if she did not have sex with him.
Wendt initially continued to perform his duties as superintendent while the investigation was ongoing. The district granted leave with pay to two employees who requested it once the investigation began. The allegations then became public this month. Wendt quickly issued a denial, but by the end of the day, Eichmann asked him to take a paid leave of absence. The following day, Wendt complied, saying in a statement, "in the interest of the District and community, he agreed that would be best and is now on leave."
Posted: 27 Apr 2018 08:29 AM PDT
In the wake of this week's announcement that the Arkansas Repertory Theatre is suspending operations effective immediately, a group of community leaders today announced plans for a street party next Tuesday, May 1, to raise funds to save the Rep.
The event will be held at 5 p.m., directly in front of the theatre. The event planners encourage residents to attend and show their support by donating to the Rep's "Next Act" fundraising campaign.
One of the volunteer organizers, Anna-Lee Pittman, stated in a press release:
We were all devastated to hear the news that one of our community's most iconic cultural institutions is on the verge of shutting downFrom Little Rock to New York, the public outcry has been felt, and countless memories and stories of lives changed by The Rep have been shared. We hope this Rally will unleash a groundswell of support and renew our community's commitment to keeping the theatre alive and properly funded for generations to come.
Rep Board Chair Brian Bush, in making the announcement earlier this week that the Rep was suspending operations, explained that the Rep's "inability to reach its projected goals for charitable giving and ticket sales, and the change in the theatre landscape in Little Rock have created a perfect financial storm for The Rep." He said that the Rep's ticket sales "have been on a downhill slope for several years." The final production of the season, "God of Carnage," has been cancelled. Certain key staffers remain in place for now, and the future of the Rep is under evaluation.
The "Rally for the Rep" street party will feature a performance by the Greasy Greens and various special guests, including Rep founder Cliff Baker.
"In order to continue operations, The Rep must raise $5 million," said Dean of the Clinton School and volunteer organizer Skip Rutherford in the group's press release. "But in the immediate, there are vendor bills that need to be paid and a three-story facility to maintain. For people like me who love The Rep and who recognize its cultural significance for this city, now is the time to step up and make a contribution."
Posted: 27 Apr 2018 07:58 AM PDT
Margaret Sova McCabe has been tapped to be the new dean of the University of Arkansas School of Law, the school announced today.
Sova McCabe, currently a law professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, was selected after a national search and will assume her duties on July 1. She will become the thirteenth dean since the School of Law's founding in 1924. The school noted that this makes the U of A only the second law school in the nation to be led by three consecutive women as deans.
"She is a nationally recognized expert in food and agriculture law and policy, a highly regarded classroom teacher and an effective administrator with a proven track record," Provost Jim Coleman said in a statement.
Sova McCabe replaces current dean Stacy Leeds, who has served in the role since 2011. Leeds was named interim vice chancellor for economic development in 2017 and is now continuing in that role on a permanent basis.
Posted: 27 Apr 2018 07:26 AM PDT
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge's office issued a press release boasting that she is part of a 20-state coalition of red-state attorneys general requesting a preliminary injunction to shut down the Affordable Care Act, thereby stripping health coverage from hundreds of thousands of Arkansans and millions of Americans.
Rutledge proudly joined a lawsuit filed in February that argues that the health care law is now unconstitutional because the GOP Congress nixed the individual mandate as part of the recently passed tax cut.
If a court actually enjoined the entire health care law, the health care marketplaces would be thrown into chaos and millions of Americans would have coverage and access to care threatened. If the entire law was actually thrown out on the basis of this lawsuit, millions of Americans would lose Medicaid coverage, millions more would lose subsidies they depend on for affordable insurance, millions of people with pre-exisiting conditions would again face price discrimination from insurance companies, the exchanges where millions of people currently have health plans would disappear, the Medicare donut hole would be re-opened, and millions of young people would lose coverage they're now getting on their parents' plans. In Arkansas, the uninsured rate would likely more than double overnight. Billions in federal spending on health care in the state would stop. But Republicans would be able to say they beat Obamacare. There can be no greater prize for Rutledge.
Rutledge doesn't mention any of these issues in her press release, instead offering some slapdash talking points: "In its current unlawful form, Obamacare still imposes rising costs and transfers an enormous amount of regulatory power to the federal government."
In their lawsuit, Rutledge and her pals offer the following convoluted argument: The Supreme Court previously ruled that the individual mandate — the requirement that people sign up for health insurance or face a financial penalty — was constitutionally permissible as a tax. Congress didn't technically eliminate the mandate itself in the recent tax cut bill, it eliminated the tax penalty for failure to comply with the mandate. It reduced the fine, in other words, from $695 to $0. By zeroing out the tax penalty, then, you're left with a mandate without an accompanying use of Congress's taxing power. That's unconstitutional, they argue, using the Supreme Court's previous logic that the mandate was allowable specifically as a tax.
Okay, but this all seems like a minor point since the mandate, for all practical purposes, has been eliminated in any case. The next leap they make, however, is that because the mandate has been described as key to the functioning of the ACA in previous Supreme Court opinions and in the original ACA legislation, nixing the mandate means that the entire law must be thrown out. "Once the heart of the ACA—the individual mandate—is declared unconstitutional, the remainder of the ACA must also fall," the lawsuit argues.
This is a pretty flimsy argument (you can read some discussion from legal experts over at Vox). Congress just passed a law that eliminated the mandate while keeping the rest of the ACA intact, so if the Court is interested in the intent of lawmakers, it's hard to conclude that the ACA is rendered utterly unworkable (an "irrational regime") without the mandate. Even conservative legal commenters seem skeptical that this has legs. "They are asking the court to evaluate the current law on the basis of what the law used to be," Jonathan Adler, a law professor who was a key architect of a previous legal challenge to the law, told Vox. "That whole analysis just doesn't apply or work anymore."
That said, Obamacare lawsuits are hard to predict, the attorneys general filed in a very friendly district court in Texas, and we'll see what happens.
Rutledge seems to be indifferent to the fact that this lawsuit targeting every single provision in the law would wreak havoc on the state, throw hospitals and insurance markets into a tailspin, reinstitute price discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, and strip coverage from hundreds of thousands of Arkansans. I suppose she's more interested in fulfilling her campaign promise to fight Obama from Little Rock, even after he's long gone from the White House. She also promised to to wake up every morning brainstorming ideas to sue the federal government. So here we are.
Who has time to worry about health care for a few hundred thousand of your citizens when there's a chance to grandstand against Obamacare? For some Republicans, endlessly re-fighting their sad war against Obamacare is the only thing that makes sense in these confusing times.
Posted: 27 Apr 2018 05:50 AM PDT
As we covered earlier this week, the new sponsor of the Turkey Trot has barred the practice of flinging live turkeys out of
Gene Baur, president and co-founder of the Farm Sanctuary, the national farm animal protection organization headquartered in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, applauded the news that the festival's new sponsor is aiming to impose limits. Baur issued the following statement:
I was happy to learn that the Mid-Marion County Rotary Club will only sponsor the Yellville Turkey Trot only if live turkeys are not abused by being dropped out of a plane. Animal cruelty should not be condoned in a society that values compassion, and we commend the Rotary Club for speaking out against a heartless tradition that has marred the Yellville event for years. Kindness to animals is good for animals, and it's also good for our humanity.Farm Sanctuary, which has been vocal in its opposition to the practice of throwing live turkeys out of planes or off of tall buildings, has previously rescued survivors of the Turkey Drop in Yellville. In 2017, they brought four turkeys who survived the drop in 2017 to their shelter in Watkins Glen, New York, where medical care was needed. One had a large chest wound after a drop from a building into the scrum of people trying to capture the birds. Two of the turkeys — named John and Ringo — were shipped to a "forever home" in Southport, Connecticut.
The Yellville Chamber of Commerce threw the future of the festival into doubt earlier this month when it withdrew as
A "phantom pilot" did the dirty work. The turkey drop was not officially part of the festival, although it was the main event and seemed to have continued with the acquiescence of local officials and the festival sponsor. The new sponsor, the Mid-Marion Rotary Club, has put an end to the winking charade, stepping up to organize the event but on the condition that no turkeys are on the premises or dropped from planes. If a turkey is tossed from a plane, the Rotary Club stated clearly, there will be no more Turkey Trot. The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette asked how they would enforce the rules on local pilots, who are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, not the Mid-Marion Rotary Club. "We know 'em all," responded Stan Duffy, president-elect of the Rotary Club. "That's not going to be a big deal."
In 2016, various media outlets revealed the identity of the "phantom pilot" who has done the drops in recent years: Dana Woods, a Mountain View pharmacist who runs Woods Pharmacy and serves on the Mountain View City Council. Woods told the Democrat-Gazette in 2016, "We treat the turkeys right. ... We're good to them." The Phantom Pilot Facebook page was defiant when news first broke that the Yellville Chamber was dropping sponsorship, stating, "It's my understanding that though the chamber will no longer be involved, there are plans in the works to continue the festival. I wouldn't revise my October schedule just yet." Thus far the page has been silent since the news that the festival would indeed continue, just without the phantom menace or turkey terror.
Meanwhile, a Nevada congresswoman has taken note of the practice and is planning to push congressional action to change the FAA regulations. Under current law, the FAA has deemed the practice legal as long as the plane has an altitude of at least 500 feet and the birds aren't dropped directly over the crowd. The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports that U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., plans to file a bill to ban the turkey drop. The law would make it illegal to drop live animals out of civilian planes in flight (sanctioned activities such as wildlife managers stocking lakes with fish from low-flying planes would still be allowed). Titus has been in active communication with the FAA and has concluded that congressional action is needed to authorize the agency to make rules regarding throwing live animals out of planes.
Posted: 27 Apr 2018 04:30 AM PDT
On Thursday morning, after a replacement monument to the Ten Commandments was installed at the state Capitol grounds, state Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway) told a crowd of media, supporters, detractors and onlookers that the monument was not intended to send a religious message, but simply one about history.
"The sole reason that we donated this monument to the state of Arkansas is
The first version of the monument was installed last June but was destroyed within 24 hours when a man, apparently mentally ill, rammed it with a car. This second version is protected from vehicular assault by concrete bollards; Rapert's words are intended to help shield it from the inevitable court challenges over religious freedom and discrimination. The ACLU of Arkansas has stated its intent to file suit, and the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers will sue as well. The Satanic Temple, the group that successfully battled a similar monument in Oklahoma in 2015, said it will file as an intervenor to any such lawsuit. As in Oklahoma, the Temple seeks to install a 10-foot bronze representation of a goat-headed deity called Baphomet on the Capitol grounds, which they describe as a symbol of religious pluralism.
Before the ceremony today, Satanic Temple spokesperson and co-founder Lucien Greaves said he felt good about the group's chances.
"I honestly don't think the Ten Commandments monument has a shot at staying here legally," he told the Arkansas Times.
Greaves points not just to the First Amendment of the federal Constitution but also Article 2, Section 24 of the state Constitution, which states "no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment, denomination or mode of worship, above any other."
In Oklahoma, the Ten Commandments matter was resolved in state court, rather than the federal judicial system, he said. "And I feel like the Oklahoma [constitution's] church/state separation language was less strong than Arkansas's, so I really feel this just doesn't stand a solid chance."
The Satanic Temple will seek to intervene in the other parties' suit or suits, he said, rather than simply joining them, because it is taking a different approach than the ACLU or the Freethinkers. "Even though the facts are the same ... our claim is different, in that we're not asking for that to come down," he said, gesturing to the newly installed Ten Commandments. "We're just saying that if it's going to be there, it's illegal for them to deny our monument to be on the Capitol grounds as well."
Greaves said the Baphomet statue is currently at the Temple's headquarter in Salem, Mass. "It's ready to go. Ready to be placed."
In 2017, when the first iteration of Rapert's monument was erected, the Satanic Temple sought approval for its own monument from the Capitol Arts and Grounds Commission. But Rep. Kim Hammer (R-Benton), who was a co-sponsor of Rapert's 2015 bill to authorize the Ten Commandments display, sponsored and passed a bill that would have required similar legislative approval to even begin the process of erecting a new monument on the Capitol grounds. That meant the Temple would have had to find a sponsor for Baphomet in the Arkansas legislature.
"The idea is that if you set up a bureaucratic approval process like that, that anybody has to go through, then it's not discriminatory," Greaves said. "But it still is if you have the House or the Senate deciding which religious viewpoints they'll sponsor for a bill or not. It doesn't take away from the viewpoint discrimination aspect of it in the least."
"We reached out to everybody who could possibly sponsor the bill and bring it forward in the House or Senate, and nobody would do it, of course. We even got emails back from some people saying they wouldn't do it because we were us — because of our viewpoint." That, he said, demonstrates "kind of a complete disregard for pluralism and constitutional liberty overall. I think that's sad, and I think this is hopefully a lesson to some about what those things really mean and what they stand for. ... I hope
"If you look at the bill that was passed to justify putting the Ten Commandments up, it says 'This is in no way to be construed as a preference of one religious viewpoint over another.' It's all fine and good to say that in the bill, but then to immediately deny other religious viewpoints from being on the Capitol grounds — it gives the lie to it," Greaves said.
Rapert said Thursday that he too was confident he would prevail in court.
"The [U.S.] Supreme Court has determined that privately funded, passive displays of the Ten Commandments are constitutional," he told the crowd. Rapert said he'd personally visited monuments on public grounds at state capitols in Phoenix, Denver and Austin. The monument installed in Little Rock Thursday is an "exact replica" of those, he said.
The senator also quoted from the 2004 U.S. Supreme Court case Van Orden v. Perry, in which a majority of justices allowed the monument in Texas to stay put. "'The establishment clause does not compel the government to purge from the public sphere all that in any way pertains to the religious,'" he said, attributing the words to Justice Stephen Breyer.
Gerry Schulze, an attorney for the Freethinkers Association, said Rapert's interpretation of the case was wrong. "It is true that the Supreme Court … did not take the Ten Commandments down in Van Orden, but the circumstances were very different." First, Schulze said, the Texas monument had been in place for forty years when the challenge was brought — a fact cited by Breyer. "Second, it was in a different type of arrangement and there was no risk
During the question-and-answer portion of the dedication ceremony, Greaves attempted to challenge Rapert on the question of the Van Orden precedent, telling the senator he did not understand the case.
"This gentleman is … not part of this," Rapert told the crowd from the podium. "As a matter of fact, this gentleman has actually opposed the monument and literally went over and apparently stood on that truck in the middle of the night here in Little Rock and posted a picture of it which is … a criminal trespass."
"Oh, it is not," Greaves said. Supporters of the Ten Commandments monument began clapping and cheering to drown him out. "Thank you, God! Thank you, God! Hallelujah, Jesus!" cried one woman.
Rapert said Thursday that any excess funds held by the American History and Heritage Foundation after completing the Ten Commandments project will be put toward similar use. "Other people in other states have already asked us to help them. … The American History and Heritage Foundation is committed to helping any city, any town, any county and any state erect monuments to the Ten Commandments," he said, to applause.
Asked if the group would only support the creation of Ten Commandments displays, he
He demurred on the question of the fund balance currently held by his group. "I'd have to ask the treasurer … but with the monument
When a reporter asked Rapert if he was concerned about forthcoming legal challenges and the potential cost to the state, the senator said he was not. He'd talked to the attorney general's office already, he said.
"The attorney general feels quite comfortable defending the monument against any lawsuits," he said. He noted that Act 1231 allows the legislature to direct the cost of any legal fees to First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based group.
Earlier, when speaking to the Arkansas Times, Greaves questioned whether the case was worth defending. "The idea here is that First Liberty might defend litigation against this, but I don't know if they'll take it at this point — because the senator, Rapert, has done such a poor job at sticking to the speaking points. That this is supposed to be of historical import, that this is supposed to send some sort of secular message about the codification of American law — because he goes running off to the pulpit and starts declaring this is a Christian nation, making very clear that he wants to bring the Gospel into the public square. And that stuff's certainly not immune from being dredged up in the courts. ...
"I just feel like there's a crushing preponderance of evidence to establish that Rapert — the pastor senator — is absolutely trying to impose his religious viewpoint on the public grounds to the exclusion of others. I think it'd be hard at this point to say otherwise, and even a court that might be inclined to leave the Ten Commandments up will have a difficult time coming up with a legal justification for that," he said.
Posted: 26 Apr 2018 06:32 PM PDT
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray today granted a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the Voter ID law. Early voting in the state's May 22 primary begins May 7.
Gray's ruling comes in response to a public interest lawsuit with Barry Haas as plaintiff and Jeff Priebe as his attorney, which asked Gray to enjoin use of the state's new voter ID law in the primary elections. The Arkansas Supreme Court held in a 2014 case (also argued by Priebe) that a previous version of the law was unconstitutional. The 2017 legislature altered the language in the law but the new lawsuit argues that it remains unconstitutional. The membership of the Supreme Court itself has changed quite a bit since the 2014 ruling so we'll see what happens, but Gray, for her part, agreed.
"[The] plaintiff has established a likelihood of success on the merits
Gray found that the plaintiff was forced with the choice of "complying with the unconstitutional requirements imposed by Act 633 [the Voter ID law] or not having his ballot counted during the May 2018 preferential primary." She ruled "that irreparable harm would result to
"Defendants contend that voter fraud exists," her 60-page ruling noted, "but there was no evidence of voter fraud presented at the hearing."
Now we'll wait for word on whether Secretary of State Mark Martin will appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Posted: 26 Apr 2018 05:36 PM PDT
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge today rejected a proposed ballot initiative from David Couch to raise the minimum wage again, this time to $11. Voters previously raised the state's minimum wage via a ballot initiative in 2014, bumping it from $6.25 to $8.50
As readers of this blog have grown accustomed to, a protracted back-and-forth to win approval form the attorney general for ballot measures has been typical. This particular rejection, however, is outrageous: The language in the proposed ballot initiative is identical to the language in the previous minimum wage initiative, which was not only approved by the previous attorney general, but ratified overwhelmingly by voters!
Couch, a Little Rock attorney who has worked on a number of successful ballot initiatives, said he was shocked by Rutledge's opinion. "She rejected the same ballot title that was approved last time," said Couch, who worked on that campaign. "It was approved by 66 percent of the voters in 2014."
Here is Couch's proposal:
The only differences between that proposal and the successful 2014 proposal are the dates and dollar amounts.
Under the circumstances, Rutledge has to jump through some hoops to come up with nits to picks. She argues that "a bare and general reference to the increase of the 'State minimum wage' may lead to confusion amongst the voters." Apparently voters have gotten dumber in the last four years. Indeed, to bother typing out these flimsy obstructions masquerading as concern for voters, Rutledge must think we're dummies.
She goes on to argue that references to "'employers' and 'employees' in the context of raising the minimum wage [are] technical terms, and as such voters should not have to guess as to their meanings."
Now, we could pretend that Rutledge has a grave concern that the ballot initiative walks through every exception and technicality to the state minimum wage law in Title 11, Chapter 4, Subchapter 2 of the Arkansas Code. But let's not go through the looking glass. This is foot-dragging on an initiative she would rather not see on the ballot. If Couch answers her objections, she'll come up with something else. You might call that an abuse of her power.
Couch said he planned to try again and re-submit tomorrow.
To proceed, the ballot measure first needs to be certified by the attorney general. At that point, the amendment would need to collect around 85,000 signatures of registered voters by July to make it on the ballot in November.
Thus far this year, Rutledge has rejected more than 50 proposed ballot titles and not accepted a single one.
In addition to this proposal, Couch also recently submitted a separate proposed ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage up to $12 (following the same graduated increase as the $11 proposal, but going up another dollar in 2022). It would also provide a "local option" to "allow counties, cities, and towns in the state to adopt and enforce a higher local minimum wage." Couch said that he is still communicating with allies to decide whether to attempt to proceed with the $11 wage-hike proposal or the $12 proposal with the local option for higher.
Posted: 26 Apr 2018 02:25 PM PDT
Update, 6:30 p.m.: Late Thursday afternoon, the ADE sent an email notification that Friday morning's tentatively scheduled meeting of the Charter Authorizing Panel has been canceled. "Friendship Aspire Academy's waiver request has been denied," it said.
Update, 8:15 p.m.: This post originally said Education Commissioner Johnny Key's denial of the waiver was not accompanied by a statement. Kim Friedman, an ADE spokesperson, sent me a statement from Key later:
"The timelines established in the charter school rules are in place for many reasons, not the least of which is for transparency to the public and to other entities that may be impacted. Waivers of those timelines are allowed in the rules to provide efficiency and expediency when necessary. However, on occasion the need for transparency and the need for expediency are in conflict. I believe this is one of those occasions. It would be imprudent to allow Friendship's amendment to move forward on a hyper-accelerated timeline and thereby deny the Charter Panel and the public sufficient time to fully review and consider the impact of their request."The commissioner's denial of Friendship's request for a waiver of Education Department rules should not be construed as opposition to its actual proposal. Today's waiver request was extraordinary: Friendship is seeking an amendment to its charter — which would have allowed it to open a year earlier than planned — and wanted a Charter Authorizing Panel hearing on its proposal immediately, rather than in May. ADE rules governing such amendments require them to be submitted "not later than thirty-five (35) days prior to the date of the authorizer meeting at which the request will be heard." In this case, Friendship submitted its proposal about a week ago, and the public was never notified of any hearing. The rules also require notification of the superintendent of the local school district in which the charter will be located. Little Rock Superintendent Mike Poore said today he had no idea the Charter Authorizing Panel was considering on discussing Friendship's proposal now, rather than in May.
Even the meeting in May itself required a waiver from
The charter operator's urgency is more than mere impatience: School starts on August 13. Though Friendship COO Joe Harris told me today that the operator does already have a leadership team in place (comprised of former Einstein Charter School employees) and, of course, a facility (the LRSD's old Garland building), a few months is precious little time to start a school from scratch. It will have to recruit teachers, recruit families, recruit support staff and much more. Harris said today that waiting several more weeks to get started will make that difficult task even more so.
No doubt. But that leads to the question of why it's so urgent for Friendship to rush into a 2018-19 school year opening in the first place.
My original post is as follows:
On Thursday, the Charter Authorizing Panel at the Arkansas Department of Education unexpectedly took up an item not listed on its agenda for the day: a hearing for Friendship Public Charter Schools, the charter operator seeking to open a school in Little Rock one year ahead of schedule. To do so, Friendship must receive an amendment to its charter from the state.
No notice was provided to the public or the Little Rock School District that the charter authorizing panel would consider Friendship's proposed amendment today. (The only item listed on the Thursday agenda concerned an unrelated matter involving Rockbridge Montessori Charter.) That runs counter to ADE's rule 4.02.05 for public charter schools, which require requested amendments to be submitted "not later than thirty-five (35) days prior to the date of the authorizer meeting at which the request will be heard." Friendship submitted its proposed amendment to the panel on April 19, just seven days ago.
The same ADE rule also states that requested amendments "shall be contemporaneously sent by the applicant to the superintendent of the local school district in which the public charter school will be located." LRSD Superintendent Mike Poore confirmed today by phone that he did not receive notice the Friendship proposal would be discussed today until "around 1 p.m." The panel convened at 1:15 p.m.
After an ADE staff attorney warned the panel today that the rushed schedule could run afoul of the department's rules, it elected to delay the hearing on Friendship's amendment until tomorrow morning at 8 a.m. That's to give sufficient time for Education Commissioner Johnny Key to waive the rule requiring 35 days advance notice and notification of a local superintendent, should he so choose.
When asked after today's meeting whether he planned to issue a waiver so that the expedited hearing could take place early tomorrow morning, Key said he would have to first see an official request for such a waiver from Friendship. Presumably, that request is being (or has been) submitted this afternoon.
Poore said he was "a little shocked" by the fact the panel is moving forward with the Friendship proposal without providing time for public comment or notifying the LRSD. He said the district had been notified of an upcoming hearing on the matter, but that they were told it would be held in mid-May, during the next Charter Authorizing Panel meeting. (Even that somewhat less-ambitious timeline required a waiver of a different ADE rule. A letter recently sent by Commissioner Key to Friendship — and provided to panel members today — states that the charter operator's amendment request will be "considered by the Charter Authorizing Panel at the May hearing.")
"It goes against the intent of having the community be able to speak to it … It's just wrong," Poore said. "That's not the way this should operate." If the panel does move ahead with an 8 a.m. meeting tomorrow, he'll rearrange his schedule to try to be there, he said. Poore expressed frustration with the uncertainty. "That's why they send a letter out — so you can manipulate your schedule to make things like this work," he said.
That led Friendship to seek to fill Einstein's place. It hopes to occupy the Garland School building, which was formerly an LRSD school but is now owned by a subsidiary of the Walton Family Foundation.
Several members of the panel today — specifically, the three members of the seven-member panel who are senior staff at the Education Department — expressed uneasiness with the attempt to expedite the Friendship amendment and voted against motions to move forward with the hearing rather than wait until May.
Posted: 26 Apr 2018 02:23 PM PDT
Your headlines for April 26, 2018: Satanic Temple plans to sue state of Arkansas over alleged religious discrimination; Turkey Trot festival has new sponsor, but only if no turkeys are dropped from planes; Clarke Tucker campaign touts poll showing close race with French Hill.
Posted: 26 Apr 2018 02:18 PM PDT
The legislative task force on taxes, reviewing possible changes to the state tax code yesterday, okayed a motion yesterday to study the possibility of raising the grocery tax and creating an income tax credit to provide targeted relief to low-income workers. Here's a good report from the D-G's Mike Wickline, who was at the meeting.
Will this end up being a good deal for lower-income Arkansans? That depends on the details. Given the body charged with coming up with those details, I'd say we plenty of reason to be leery.
The task force calls itself "Tax Reform and Relief," but the underlying aim here is to hunt for ways to cut income taxes on higher earners. Indeed, that's the reason that the task force was created in the first place, under pressure from some GOP lawmakers who believe that higher-income Arkansans haven't been gifted enough tax breaks under the Hutchinson administration.
However, the few progressive voices on the tax force have been pushing for a state earned-income tax credit (EITC), which would put money directly into the hands of lower-income workers. The federal EITC is available to working families with children who have annual incomes below about $40,000 to $55,000 (depending on the family size) and working people who have no children but have incomes below $15,270 for an individual, or $20,950 for a couple. The program is designed to encourage work and is a "refundable" credit — meaning that workers can receive the benefit from the federal government even if it exceeds their income tax liability. In other words, this can increase the size of refund checks, which then get spent on vital necessities for these workers and working families, research shows. The federal EITC benefited 26 million working families and individuals, lifting 5.8 million of them out of poverty, including about 3 million children.
Rep. Warwick Sabin has doggedly pushed legislation that would enact a state-level EITC which would give lower-income workers a tax credit of 5 percent of the value of their federal credit. It's a far more efficient approach than Hutchinson's much smaller tax cuts for lower-income workers that passed last year; the EITC would have cost significantly less but given significantly more relief to lower-income workers. Unfortunately, Republicans in the legislature rejected the state EITC and the notion was punted to the task force. Ronald Reagan was a supporter of the EITC approach, a fact often pointed out by Democrats; however, Reagan's acolytes, such as Rep. Charlie Collins, have disparaged the EITC during past legislative debates as "welfare."
While the legislature has been reluctant to okay this sort of targeted relief for the poor, the task force yesterday agreed to look at the possibility of an EITC, or other targeted income tax credit, as a way to offset a potential increase in the sales tax applied to groceries. The task force, in a divided vote, approved a motion from its co-chairman Rep. Lane Jean to study these options for consideration in August.
The sales tax on groceries was gradually reduced during the Beebe administration, from 6 percent down to 1.5 percent, and is slated to fall to 0.125 percent next year based on legislation passed in 2013. This was a long effort of heavy political lifting to reduce the burden on all Arkansans purchasing groceries — and the reduced sales tax on groceries is now extremely popular — so it's jarring to see the task force put reversing that effort on the table.
Sales taxes are generally regressive — because the tax rate is the same for everyone, poor people end up spending a higher proportion of their incomes on these taxes than rich people (income taxes, on the other hand, typically aim to be progressive by charging higher rates for higher incomes). So raising the grocery tax would hit lower-income Arkansans especially hard —and would hit them hard specifically by increasing the cost of goods that are literally necessary for survival (important political side note: it would also hit senior citizens, who might no longer have much taxable income but still buy groceries).
That said, a tradeoff like the one suggested by Jean's proposal for study could potentially help lower-income workers on net. If an EITC or similar income tax credit was large enough, it could provide more directly targeted relief to lower-wage earners than the current grocery tax exemption, which applies to anyone who buys groceries, regardless of income. In other words: Some of the revenues soaked up by the grocery sales tax exemption end up benefiting wealthy grocery shoppers, whereas all of the EITC costs go directly into the pockets of low-income workers.
But there's no guarantee that the task force would recommend that all of the revenues brought in by raising the sales tax on groceries would go toward an income tax credit that helps the poor. Raising the grocery tax could raise a couple hundred millions of dollars per year. Let's remember the context that this task force is operating in: At the opening of the fiscal session in February, Hutchinson told the legislature, to applause, that in in the 2019 legislative session, he wants to see the top marginal income tax rate cut from 6.9 percent to 6 percent, which would be a $180 million tax cut, knocking down state revenues by 3 percent. Such a cut would impact individuals who make more than $75,000 or married couples making more than $150,000, with the benefits heavily weighted toward the very rich — less than 1 percent of taxpayers would get 12 percent of that proposed tax cut.
It would be the largest tax cut in the state's history, so the task force is highly motivated to hunt for offsetting revenues. If I was a progressive on the task force, I would be at least a little worried about the endgame if raising the grocery tax is on the table.
Rich Huddleston of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families provided the following statement:
Just about everyone seems to agree that broadening the sales tax base is a good idea for modernizing the Arkansas tax code. There is also rare consensus on some cautions to that approach: don't tax business inputs and be mindful of the regressive nature of the sales tax. Arkansas should broaden the sales tax when possible to include the taxing of services and eliminating unnecessary exemptions. We need to be careful not to tax business inputs for economic competitiveness reasons.Among the ideas floated by task force members have been variations on the earned income tax credit, such as a grocery tax credit or gasoline tax credit (such credits would ultimately still have to be administered through the income tax system to target low-income workers). Part of what you are seeing, I suspect, is an effort to put an Arkansas-specific brand on an idea, the EITC, that has become associated with nationally with Democrats or liberals. You might recall that Arkansas Republicans became more open to Medicaid expansion when they could call it something else.
And as with Medicaid expansion, some of this potential Republican revision would make for bad policy and harm the people the program is meant to help. For example, some lawmakers would like an EITC that is non-refundable, meaning that it could reduce tax liability but not actually put additional dollars into the pockets of low-income workers.
"If a state EITC is created, it has to be refundable," Huddleston said. "That is, if the EITC the family is eligible for is greater than the state income taxes they owe, they should receive the difference back in the form of a cash refund. The reason for this is clear. Many low-income families don't owe state income taxes because of policy changes enacted over the past decade. However, they still have a higher overall state and local tax burden because of their higher sales tax burden relative to their income. A refundable EITC would help reduce that high sales tax burden."
The discussion about the grocery tax is happening as part of a broader discussion by the task force about sales tax exemptions. In total, Arkansas currently has 101 sales tax exemptions, reducing revenue by $1.4 billion annually. The list of 43 sales-tax exemptions to review was first developed at a March 20 meeting. The list included certain sales tax exemptions that apply to manufacturing, agriculture, fuel, medical services and equipment (including prescription drugs and nonprofit hospitals and nursing homes), billboards, newspapers and magazines, ticket sales by schools and colleges, and more.
The legislature is reviewing that list this week and yesterday has voted to give additional study to a half a dozen exemptions in addition to the exemption on the grocery sales tax (including sales of magazines and publications sold through subscription; the back-to-school tax holiday for school supplies and clothing; coin-operated carwashes; and four-wheelers and all-terrain vehicles for farm use).
It's possible that a reduction in exemptions and applying the sales tax to more services could lead to reducing the sales tax rates (in tax jargon, that's broadening the base in order to lower the rates). Because most sales taxes are regressive, broadening the base in order to keep rates relatively lower could benefit lower-income Arkansans, as Eleanor Wheeler, a senior policy analyst for Arkansas Advocates, explained in a recent blog post. It could also raise revenues that could go to targeted relief for low-wage workers, such as the EITC, or to needed investments in underfunded programs such as child welfare and pre-K.
However, this task force has other ideas and made its intentions clear yesterday, approving a motion from Sen. Bart Hester that revenues raised from eliminating sales tax exemptions would be directed toward future income tax cuts. Happy news for high earners! The specific grocery tax exemption was placed in a slightly different category, as lawmakers signaled yesterday that at least some of those revenues would go toward an EITC to offset its impact on the poor (otherwise that would be a pretty bad look, hiking grocery taxes just to lower taxes on the rich). But when asked by Wickline whether revenues raised from raising the grocery tax could also go toward cutting income taxes, Jean responded, "There is no plan right now."
Wheeler wrote about the worst-case scenario for Arkansas Advocates:
If we expanded the sales tax base without also creating a state EITC to offset the sales tax burden, we would be shifting our tax structure in the wrong direction (toward low-wage workers). Any extra revenue should be put into a state EITC or put back into the budget to fund critical programs. The worst-case scenario would be to use the extra revenue from the sales tax to fund budget-busting tax cuts for upper-income earners. Unfortunately, this is an idea with legs.Eliminating sales tax exemptions is a political minefield, as each exemption has interests — some with significant political muscle — that benefit from it. The task force will surely be hearing from the grocery stores, for example. The fact that the task force has decided to study these various ideas doesn't mean it will actually recommend them, or that the legislature would act on such recommendations. However it shakes out, I will hazard the guess that the wealthiest Arkansans will be well taken care of.
The task force is required to issue a report to the governor and legislature by September 1, which will likely include recommendations for legislation for the 2019 session.
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