Quote of the week
"We're going to use the veterans to do some hard things because it gives us cover."
— Rep. Bob Ballinger (R-Hindsville), complaining on the House floor about the inclusion of a $6 million tax cut on the wholesale tax on soft drink syrup paid for by a tax hike on unemployment benefits and digital downloads in a bill promoted by Governor Hutchinson that also creates a tax exemption for military retirement pay. The military exemption would affect 29,000 military retirees, while reducing general revenue by $13.4 million in 2019. That loss of revenue would be entirely offset by an increase in the tax on candy and soft drinks. The bill was likely to be considered in the Senate earlier this week and was expected to advance.
Ledge: Please sue us
Governor Hutchinson signed into law a ban on dilation and evacuation abortion after 12 weeks gestation, the safest procedure in the second trimester (used in 95 percent of all second-trimester abortions in the United States), hours after it cleared the General Assembly.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Andy Mayberry (R-Hensley), the president of Arkansas Right to Life, was based on National Right to Life Committee legislation. It has an exception for the life of the mother, but none for rape or incest. Rita Sklar, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, said legal action would be forthcoming. The World Health Organization and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend dilation and evacuation as the safest abortion procedure for women more than 12 or 13 weeks pregnant. Mayberry referred to the medical procedure as "dismemberment."
New law will reduce waitlist
Hundreds of Arkansas families who have been waiting years for state assistance in caring for developmentally disabled children or adults will soon be able to access those services, thanks to a bill signed into law by Governor Hutchinson. HB 1033 will use a portion of Arkansas's tobacco settlement proceeds to expand the Alternative Community Services Waiver Program, which provides home- and community-based services to individuals with developmental disabilities. Around 3,000 families are on the waiting list to receive waiver services. In September, when the governor announced his intention to use $8.5 million in tobacco settlement funds to reduce the waiting list, he estimated the list would be reduced by 500 to 900 people.
DHS spokesperson Amy Webb told the Arkansas Times that those numbers still stand. The money will serve "a minimum of 500," she said, "but if they have less complex needs, we think we can serve up to 900. ... It just depends on individual needs."
Distressed no more
The Arkansas Department of Education has recommended that J.A. Fair High School and McClellan High School in the Little Rock School District be removed from the list of campuses the state deems to be in academic distress. Eight other schools and the Blytheville School District were also on the list of distressed campuses recommended for removal. The list included one area charter school, Little Rock Preparatory Academy Elementary; Jacksonville Middle School; and several schools in Pine Bluff.
Academic distress is determined by student performance on standardized tests. If less than 49.5 percent of the student body meets proficiency standards in math and literacy for three years, a school is considered distressed.
Should the state Board of Education follow the recommendation from ADE (which it typically does in regards to academic distress designations) three campuses in the Little Rock district would be left on the distressed list: Hall High and two middle schools, Cloverdale and Henderson. The state board will take up the recommendations at its next meeting, which is scheduled for Feb. 9.
The district was taken over by the state board in January 2015 because six schools (out of 48 campuses total at that time) were in academic distress. Baseline Elementary was removed from the distressed list previously.
Little Rock Superintendent Mike Poore announced that the LRSD is delaying the millage election that it had scheduled for March 14. No new election date was announced, though Poore emphasized in a statement that the postponement is temporary.