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Justice sues to stop dark money ads from running

Also, irony of the week and DHS ordered to stop using algorithm.

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Irony of the week

For this ballot cycle, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has rejected at least 70 ballot initiatives and approved none. Last week, the Arkansas Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a minimum wage-related case that could further define the high court's new interpretation of the state Constitution's sovereign immunity provision. In January, the court ruled that the legislature may not pass laws that waive the constitutional provision that prevents the state from being made a defendant in its courts. In oral arguments last week, Chief Justice Dan Kemp asked what kept that provision from "turning Arkansas into a totalitarian state like North Korea?" Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Merritt replied that "the Constitution contains a variety of provisions to protect the people from government. ... The people reserve the right to amend the constitution, so if the people want to change the sovereign immunity provision, they certainly have the ability to do that." But not if Rutledge rejects all ballot initiatives that come across her desk. In fact, one of the proposals Rutledge has rejected would change the sovereign immunity provision by adding the words "unless authorized by the General Assembly." The group behind the proposal, the Committee to Restore Arkansans' Rights, has sued Rutledge in Pulaski County Court. It's been joined by several other ballot groups. Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen was scheduled to hear the case May 18.

Justice sues to stop dark money ads from running

Associate Justice Courtney Goodson has filed a pair of defamation lawsuits seeking an end to local broadcasts of TV ads funded by the Judicial Crisis Network, a D.C.-based "dark money" group backing one of Goodson's opponents to her bid for re-election to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Goodson filed suits in Pulaski and Washington counties, seeking a temporary restraining order against KATV, Channel 7, and the parent companies of several other stations in Arkansas, including Nexstar Broadcasting, Mission Broadcasting and Comcast of Arkansas. The real target, though, is the JCN, which is attempting to replace Goodson with challenger David Sterling, an attorney for the state Department of Human Services.

Goodson's suits call the JCN's advertising "false, misleading and defamatory." In Washington County, Circuit Judge Doug Martin issued a temporary restraining order to prevent the ads from airing. A hearing before Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza was scheduled for Friday.

The JCN's mission is to elect conservative judges across the country. As a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, the group does not have to disclose its donors and it skirts campaign finance rules through the use of so-called "issue ads." In recent weeks, the group has bought over a million dollars worth of TV spots smearing Goodson and Court of Appeals Judge Kenneth Hixson — who is also running for the seat — in advance of nonpartisan judicial elections May 22. (Early voting began May 7.)

DHS ordered to stop using algorithm

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen has issued an order requiring the Arkansas Department of Human Services to stop using its method of assigning attendant care hours for thousands of disabled Medicaid beneficiaries receiving at-home care under a waiver program.

The decision is a victory for advocates of the disabled, including Legal Aid of Arkansas, which represented the plaintiffs.

DHS indicated beneficiaries of the ARChoices waiver program could expect to receive the same level of care they're currently approved to receive, at least for the time being. "DHS will promptly seek emergency promulgation of modified ARChoices rules that address the Judge's concerns, which would allow us to continue the program," the agency said in a statement.

In late 2015, DHS informed beneficiaries in two distinct Medicaid waiver programs — one for physically disabled people and one for the elderly — that they would be merged into a single new program, called ARChoices. DHS said benefits would remain the same. But in merging the two programs, the state agency also created a new, algorithm-based method of determining the weekly number of home care hours received by each beneficiary, rather than using the discretion of a nurse to assess individuals' level of need.

At-home services are typically much cheaper than institutional care and are usually much preferred by recipients. Rather than paying for 24/7 care in a nursing home or similar institution, a waiver program like ARChoices allows Medicaid to pay each week for an attendant to assist with daily activities such as bathing, cooking and cleaning. That would seem to make at-home services a win-win for the state and for beneficiaries. But when the new algorithm went into effect in Arkansas, many people were alarmed to find their attendant care hours decreased.

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