Quote of the Week
"If anything, we have an under-incarceration problem."
— U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, speaking to the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. Cotton was explaining his opposition to the bipartisan criminal justice reform bill now being considered by Congress that would reduce federal sentencing guidelines for nonviolent offenders and pave the way for some prisoners serving drug-related sentences to seek shorter sentences. Cotton has positioned himself as a leading voice against the proposed reform, which he called "a criminal leniency bill." About that under-incarceration problem: The U.S. has the largest prison population rate in the world, with over 1.56 million Americans behind bars.
His way or the highway
Another special legislative session came to an end this week with Gov. Hutchinson's $50 million bill for highway money cruising to passage over the objections of some legislators from both parties. The governor's plan dips into the state budget surplus to pay for new road building; of course, that means less money to spend on other necessities of government — such as education — especially when coupled with the regressive tax cuts beloved of Hutchinson's administration. Sen. Jimmy Hickey (R-Texarkana) and others proposed a more honest alternative that would have paid for Arkansas's highway needs with a proposed fuel tax increase, but it foundered. To spend $50 million on roads, you either have to raise taxes or take the money from elsewhere; Hutchinson refused to consider the former option.
Safety standards a la carte
Also approved this session: a bill providing exceptions from the state's earthquake-resistant building design standards. It originated with two Northeast Arkansas legislators, Sen. David Burnett (D-Osceola) and Rep. Monte Hodges (D-Blytheville), who intend to reduce the cost of a Nucor Corp. steel mill being constructed in Mississippi County. Unfortunately, Mississippi County sits astride the New Madrid fault, a major seismic zone that is likely still active, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. In a statement, the president of the Structural Engineers Association of Arkansas, Paul Timko, warned that allowing such waivers could result in "a substantially underdesigned structure" and urged legislators against the bill. It passed both chambers by large margins.
Restroom madness, deferred
At least we were spared this session from legislation that would have attacked transgender people by penalizing the use of the "wrong" public bathroom. Who determines what constitutes "wrong"? That'd be Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain Home), who prepared a draft of such a bill and intended to file it, according to multiple sources at the Capitol contacted by the Arkansas Times last week. One rumor had it that Irvin's proposal would have made it a sex crime for a person to use a bathroom intended for a gender other than the one that appears on his or her birth certificate. The governor opposed introduction of the bill in the special session, though, and so it never saw the light of day. Expect something similar to appear in the 2017 regular session.
Brakes applied to NWA charter
The state Education Department's charter authorizing panel made the right call last week when it denied major growth requests by Haas Hall Academy, a charter school with two campuses in Northwest Arkansas. Haas wanted to expand to a new 500-student campus in Springdale and enlarge its Fayetteville campus from 400 to 500 seats. Critics contend the high test scores at Haas are partly the result of the school misusing its lottery admission process and discouraging lower-achieving students from attending (Haas administrators said they've addressed issues with the lottery). The review panel's members were especially concerned about diversity: Currently, less than 2 percent of Haas' 647-member student body is black and about 8 percent is Hispanic. The state Board of Education could still overturn the panel's decision.
Hanging out too hard
A TV station in Mobile, Ala., reported that Gov. Hutchinson's son, Asa Hutchinson III, was arrested for drug possession over the weekend in Gulf Shores at the annual Hangout Music Festival. The younger Hutchinson, who is a lawyer and an Arkansas resident, was found in possession of MDMA, according to the local sheriff's office. He was released on a $5,000 bond after spending the night in jail.