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2017 legislature spreads its wings

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Quote of the Week:

"I believe that what's ahead is an administration that is not going to treat mid-America as flyover region. I expect ... a greater appreciation for our values, for our culture, for the Second Amendment and for our agriculture."

— Governor Hutchinson, speaking to the Arkansas Farm Bureau last week about the direction of the state under a Donald Trump administration. The governor, and big Arkansas farm interests, hope Trump will abandon his campaign promises to impose trade barriers; they want access to hungry foreign markets like China and Cuba. Hutchinson said he'd spoken to the president-elect by phone and came away optimistic, though he added that it would be up to rural states like Arkansas to "educate him, a New Yorker, about agricultural policy."

The 2017 legislature spreads its wings

The Arkansas General Assembly has started prefiling bills, and the outlook is as grim as could be expected.

From Rep. Andy Mayberry (R-Hensley) comes a bill that would ban most second trimester abortions in Arkansas by prohibiting "dilation and evacuation" procedures. Last year, 683 out of the 3,771 abortions performed in the state fell in this category.

Reps. Bruce Cazort (R-Hot Springs) and Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle) propose dismantling protections for educators under the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, which establishes due process for firing a teacher. Cazort's bill would allow the law to be waived in a public school or district that has been taken over by the state Education Department. (The Little Rock School District is the most prominent example.) Lowery's bill would exclude principals, assistant principals and district central office staff from the fair dismissal act.

Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch) has filed legislation that would prohibit municipal "sanctuary policies" for immigrants and render cities ineligible for state funds if they don't work hand in hand with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. (Odd that conservatives want increased federal interference in local affairs in this instance.)

Less straightforwardly bad is a batch of bills from Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) that would significantly change the Arkansas child welfare system, especially the role of the juvenile courts. Among other things, Clark wants to create a process for reinstatement of parental rights that have been previously terminated due to child maltreatment. Several of the proposed changes address real problems with the courts and are worth serious consideration — but others could do more harm than good. Stay tuned.

The schmoozing schedule

At orientation this week, state lawmakers have a full social calendar bankrolled by lobbyists representing industries such as poultry, nursing homes, telecoms, oil and gas, hospitals, forestry, banking and much more. The House of Representatives' calendar shows lobbyists sponsoring breakfast, lunch and dinner (including cocktail receptions) each and every day this work week, 15 meals in a row.

Some might recall a constitutional amendment approved by Arkansas voters in 2014, which prohibits legislators from accepting a meal on a lobbyist's tab. Ah, but Amendment 94 doesn't apply if the lobbyist hosts a "planned event" that any lawmaker can attend — or so the legislature decided after the Amendment 94 was passed. Don't wait for your invitation in the mail, though. The House website notes events are for "Members of the 91st General Assembly & Staff only."

Which Fayetteville am I running for again?

In a runoff election for the Fayetteville City Council, one candidate's campaign materials contained picturesque shots of a local landmark ... from the wrong locale. Among the photos front-and-center on Republican Tracy Hoskins' campaign website were stock photos of the Old Market House from Fayetteville, North Carolina. Last week, Hoskins, a business developer, was defeated for the Ward 3 seat by Sarah Bunch, a real estate agent.

Lawsuit against prison pastor

A former inmate at McPherson Women's Unit, Leticia Villarreal, filed a federal lawsuit against former chaplain Kenneth Dewitt and the Arkansas Department of Correction. Dewitt pleaded guilty in July to multiple counts of third-degree sexual assault of three female inmates at McPherson, including Villarreal, but only received a five-year sentence. Villarreal said she was made to report to Dewitt's office every Monday morning, where the chaplain would lecture her about "how to have a proper relationship with God" before raping her. She's seeking damages for pain and suffering and medical bills and an order requiring the ADC to "improve its policies and practices."

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