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Big Ideas: For Arkansas

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Solve the energy crisis with wastewater and chicken feathers
By Jeff Short

Hydrogen, the universe's most abundant element, can do almost everything. It can run a variety of engines without emitting carbon dioxide. In fuel cells, it can generate clean electricity. And it can serve as a feedstock for fertilizer, plastics and chemical processes. 

Arkansas municipalities and farming communities should mine their wastewater for hydrogen. One efficient process, electrolysis, involves using electricity to generate hydrogen gas from the ammonia found in many wastewaters.

Storing hydrogen gas safely and efficiently can be a problem. The usual method is expensive, but as a recent University of Delaware study found, cheap and abundant chicken feathers contain a protein called keratin that can be treated to form tiny hollow tubes perfect for storing hydrogen gas.

With plenty of wastewaters and chicken feathers, Arkansas is a natural fit to develop — and apply — these technologies to lead the nation in the use of hydrogen as a sustainable energy resource.

Air Force Col. Jeff Short (Ret.) is a retired engineer for the U.S. Department of Energy and a former commissioner on the Governor's Commission on Global Warming.

Stop building prisons
By Wendell Griffen

Although the crime rate in Arkansas has fallen in each of the past three years and is well below the highs reached during the 1990s, during 2009 state spending on corrections reached an all-time high. According to a June 2010 issue brief from the Pew Center on the States titled "Arkansas: Improving Public Safety and Containing Corrections Costs," the prison population in Arkansas more than doubled over the past 20 years. 

Twenty years ago, corrections cost our state $45 million, less than 3 percent of all general fund dollars. Today the bill is $349 million per year, or 8 percent of the general fund. 

The Pew Center report states that the Arkansas prison population is expected to rise to more than 6,500 inmates (as much as 43 percent) over the next 10 years unless growth is contained.  Building and operating new prisons to accommodate that growth will cost approximately $1.1 billion between 2010 and 2020. Construction costs alone (an estimated $355 million) will exceed the general fund dollars currently spent annually on corrections.

A 10-year statewide moratorium on prison construction and expansion is a vital first step toward needed change. Judges and prosecutors should also decrease reliance on incarceration and increase probation and other mandatory supervision options for non-violent offenders. These measures are much less costly and more likely to reduce recidivism than our current affinity for incarceration. 

Circuit Judge-elect Wendell Griffen is pastor of New Millennium Church.

Ratify the Equal Rights Amendment
By Bernadette Cahill

Arkansas could become a national leader among the states and make a huge difference for all Americans by ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) during the new session of the General Assembly.

The ERA, first introduced 87 years ago to address an area clearly overlooked by the Founding Fathers, states: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."

That our legislature has already considered, and ultimately rejected, the ERA several times, is no reason not to move forward. That the deadline imposed by Congress for the required three-fourths of states to ratify (35 out of the required 38 have done so) has long passed is no reason not to move forward either. There's precedent for ignoring such a limit.

Arkansas should point the way and enshrine in the Constitution the concept of equality on which this country is founded. Finally, the motto on the Supreme Court building — Equal Justice Under Law — could ring true.

Bernadette Cahill is a writer, watercolorist and radio producer/host.

Bring a major tech conference to Arkansas
By Cotton Rohrscheib

Each year thousands of tech insiders, thought leaders and celebrities flock to Austin, Texas, for SXSWi (South by Southwest Interactive), a huge tech conference that sets the tone of the industry for the year and gives the Austin economy a huge shot in the arm. Why can't we pull off a similar event in Arkansas?

Already, we've got a strong foundation. Last year, I helped launch Central Arkansas Refresh, a monthly discussion group of locals who make their living working on the web. In a little more than a year's time, we've registered 200 members. The inaugural BarCamp Conway and BarCamp Jonesboro — free, user-generated tech conferences where attendees vote, collectively, on topics to be presented — were unmitigated successes earlier this year. Each had more than 100 attendees from all over the region and more than a dozen sponsors, including big players like Adobe and Microsoft.

With municipal and corporate support, we can build on the infrastructure already in place and host a major conference that attracts attendees — and attention — from all over the country.

Cotton Rohrscheib is a partner at Pleth Networks. He blogs at

Establish niche self-service museums in small towns
By Mark Keith

Many small towns have empty buildings downtown. In most cases, retail businesses are not coming there to fill them. Why not patch them up as cheaply as possible and put self-service museums or exhibits in them? Almost every town has a famous son or daughter or is famous for some event. Showcase that with a walk-through, self-service museum or exhibit. Put the exhibits behind glass or somehow protect them. Put in some lighting. Don't worry about heating or air conditioning it. A nearby business owner could unlock the building every day when he comes to work and lock it up at night. 

Wouldn't a baseball fan stop in Waldo to see an exhibit on Hall of Famer Travis "Stonewall" Jackson?  Wouldn't a country music/cowboy movie fan stop to see an exhibit on Jimmy Wakely in Howard County? Or an exhibit on the Wilburn Brothers in Hardy? Or Patsy Montana in Hope? Or an exhibit on Johnny Cash in Dyess or Kingsland? It might only attract a few hundred people a year. But that's a few hundred more people than are stopping in your town to buy a Coke or eat lunch now. And it could make a downtown look alive.

Mark Keith is the director of the Hope Chamber of Commerce.

Add a child- impact statement to the state budget
By Rich Huddleston

You've heard of environmental-impact statements. Why not child-impact statements?

There should be a check mark next to every state budget decision signifying that it doesn't harm our most valuable asset.  

But why stop there? Let's make children — especially our youngest and poorest children — the focus of public policy in Arkansas. Every decision should not only not harm them, it should benefit them so that they can grow up healthy, wealthy and wise.

The state budget should come with a companion statement that shows how every category of spending impacts children and their families. Child-centered programs would be analyzed by their impact on children, with details on how they benefit particular age groups, income groups and races. It should include county-level analysis and trends over time.

Whenever lawmakers consider a spending bill — whether for highways, corrections, economic development, tax breaks, health care, or some other area — the first question asked should be: "Is this going to benefit our children?"

Even better: Arkansas should have a comprehensive, long-term plan for improving the well-being of each child, especially the most vulnerable. It should include the most reliable indicators and statistics on child well-being and only the best, research-based solutions to problems affecting children. One example is the nationwide Kids Count Data Book produced annually by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (in which Arkansas is ranked above only Mississippi and Washington, D.C.).

The plan would identify what it would take for Arkansas to become the best state in the nation for kids to grow up in. It would include steps we'd need to take during the next two, five and 10 years to improve the life of every child — similar to the goals of cutting poverty in half in 10 years that a legislative task force on poverty recently outlined.

A permanent state commission on children and families would monitor our progress and report back to voters on how well elected officials performed. It could even be led by a children's tsar, who'd constantly remind our leaders of our top priority.

Rich Huddleston is executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Family.

More Big Ideas for Arkansas:

Our schools should have sufficient services available to deal with kids who would otherwise be sent home for bad behavior. Dr. Charles Feild

Viable, affordable, statewide broadband service. Amy Bradley-Hole

The state should offer searchable databases of campaign finance and other ethical reports for all levels of government, from school board to Congress.

The rest of Arkansas government should emulate Eureka Springs and provide health benefits for domestic partners. It would produce a tidal wave of national publicity for the state's far-thinking and compassionate policy.

The state should establish a need-based fund to finance world travel for educational study by high school and college students.

Live broadcasts of all legislative meetings — committees and House and Senate.

The state should require a year of foreign language instruction for high school graduation.

End Sunday blue laws. Increase the severance tax.


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