Stat of the week
The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that, in the House Republican bill to replace Obamacare, which is largely mirrored in the newly unveiled Senate GOP's Better Care Reconciliation Act, the 400 top income households in the U.S. would receive $33 billion in tax cuts between 2019 and 2028. That sum is equal to the bill's proposed savings by ending Medicaid expansion in four states — Alaska, Arkansas, West Virginia and Nevada.
A 6-foot-tall Ten Commandments monument was installed outside the state Capitol on Tuesday. Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway), the evangelist who sponsored legislation to enable it, was on hand to preen before the cameras. He insisted the monument — paid for with private contributions — will withstand the legal challenge promised by the ACLU and others to state promotion of religion on the Capitol grounds. He rests his case on Texas' similar monument — a relic from a movie decades ago that had become so enshrined and essentially invisible that the courts allowed it to stand when a challenge was raised many years later. More recently, courts ordered removal of a monument in Oklahoma.
New plan to pay for LRSD facilities
State Education Commissioner Johnny Key has approved a plan by Little Rock School District Superintendent Michael Poore to raise $90 million through second-lien bonds to build the proposed new high school in Southwest Little Rock and pay for other facility improvements, including roof and heat/air repairs. Since the LRSD was taken over two years ago by the state for low test scores at a handful of its 48 schools, Key has served as the school board. Second-lien bonds do not require voter approval; they are repaid with surplus debt millage. That's currently some $27 million in excess of the amount necessary for current bond payments, but it would come at the expense of operational funds, which likely means budget cuts somewhere else.
On May 9, LRSD voters overwhelmingly defeated a proposal to extend 12.4 mills in debt for 14 years to allow a $200 million bond sale to pay for various district improvements and build a high school.
Griffen rules new juvenile sentencing law unconstitutional
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen ruled last week that a 2017 law addressing sentencing of juvenile killers was unconstitutional.
He said the law unconstitutionally took sentencing out of the hands of a jury by setting a mandatory life sentence for capital murder, first-degree murder and treason, with a possibility of parole after 25 years for first-degree murder and 30 years for capital murder.
The law was an effort to amend Arkansas law to comport with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that held life without parole sentences unconstitutional for juvenile offenders 17 and younger.
Since that Supreme Court decision, the Arkansas Supreme Court has begun hearing cases from people sentenced to life as juveniles. It has held that they should receive sentencing hearings and be given a chance to present evidence about age, the nature of the crime and other issues and given a sentence within the range for Class Y felonies.
The legislature failed in its effort to create "age appropriate sentencing standards," Griffen ruled. The right to a jury trial includes jury sentencing, he said. "The issue of sentencing is not determined by the General Assembly. The General Assembly only determines the range of punishment for given sentences."
The mandatory sentence in the 2017 law deprives defendants of the ability to present mitigating evidence on sentencing, Griffen said. The so-called Fair Sentencing of Minors Act doesn't pass constitutional muster because "it denies individualized sentencing," according to Griffen.
Griffen also said the law encroached on separation of powers. The state argued that the law provides parole hearings at which defendants can offer mitigating evidence. But Griffen said parole hearings are not sentencing hearings. They are a condition of release subsequent to sentencing, he said. He said the legislature overstepped its authority because parole is an executive branch function.
Bathroom bill revived
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted last week to have interim hearings on a bathroom bill by Sen. Linda Collins-Smith (R-Pocahontas). The bill is an effort to prohibit transgender people from using facilities that match their identity.
It's mean stuff, and the intervention of Governor Hutchinson and his nephew, Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock), kept it off the statute books in 2017. But the enemies of transgender people haven't quit fighting, with a recent victory in Texas to their credit. They are red hot to continue pursuit of a nonexistent problem in Arkansas and will at least have some hearings before the next regular legislative session. (In theory, only budget matters may be discussed at the 2018 assembly.) If we're lucky, a Republican challenger will defeat Collins-Smith in the 2018 primary.
Corrections: In Gene Lyons' June 22 column, "Megyn vs. Alex," he mistakenly wrote that the Sandy Hook massacre happened in 2015. It was in 2012.
The June 22 Arkansas Reporter, "Two suits challenge new abortion laws," mistakenly referred to a 48-day waiting period for those seeking an abortion, rather than a 48-hour period.