Quote of the Week:
"You're looking at students who are granted authority to be in the university system. They're paying tuition — out-of-state tuition, I believe — and they're getting their education, and while they're doing that, we don't want to create a climate of fear for them."
— Governor Hutchinson, noting his concerns about legislation by Rep. Brandt Smith (R-Jonesboro) that would have stripped state funds from colleges and universities with "sanctuary policies" toward undocumented immigrants. The bill failed in committee as Hutchinson was making his remarks, though a similar bill targeting "sanctuary cities" remains alive for the time being. The Republican governor also made not-so-Trumpish remarks criticizing a bill from Smith regarding Sharia law (see cover story, page 14).
AG fights to repeal local LGBT civil rights law
The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case challenging the legitimacy of Fayetteville's ordinance protecting LGBT people from discrimination, a law that was ratified by the city's voters in a September 2015 election. Many cities around the U.S. have passed similar nondiscrimination ordinances that include sexual orientation and gender identity. But Republicans in the Arkansas legislature attempted to forestall such progress by creating a state law in 2015 forbidding local civil rights measures that "create protected classification or prohibit discrimination on a basis not contained in state law." So much for "local control." The Supreme Court will likely have a decision in the coming weeks.
Save our schools ... or sell our schools?
Education Commissioner Johnny Key announced school closures in the Little Rock School District will move forward as recommended by Superintendent Mike Poore — a surprise to no one, but a blow nonetheless for parents. Because the district remains in state takeover, the education commissioner acts in the role of its school board and has final authority over such decisions. Students at Franklin and Wilson elementary schools and Woodruff Early Childhood Center will be reassigned to different campuses at the end of the school year. The closures are necessary due to a loss of funds from the state, Key and Poore have said. Coincidentally, Republican legislators introduced a bill that would give charter schools first dibs on leasing vacant public school buildings. Could be a sweet deal for charter operators in Little Rock looking to expand their footprint and pull more students away from the beleaguered LRSD.
Let the sunshine in
At least one good idea may be going places this legislative session (fingers crossed). The House passed a bill by Rep. Jana Della Rosa (R-Rogers) that would increase transparency by requiring candidates to file campaign contribution reports online, thus creating a searchable electronic database. The state has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a better online filing system; Della Rosa's measure would merely require elected officials to use it, rather than filing their reports the old-fashioned opaque way — on paper. A similar proposal from Della Rosa in 2015 was killed by her own party (joined by some Democrats), so the progress is encouraging. But, it could face a tougher climb in the Senate.
Amazon tax hits a snag
A bill aimed at requiring Amazon and other out-of-state sellers without a physical presence in the state to collect sales tax stalled in a House committee on Tuesday, just a few days after Amazon announced it would voluntarily begin collecting tax on purchases made by Arkansans starting March 1. SB 140 by Sen. Jake Files (R-Fort Smith) passed the Senate last week. But after the panel rejected an amendment from House Minority Leader Rep. Michael John Gray (D-Augusta) that would dedicate $25 million of the new sales tax revenue to the Medicaid trust fund, pre-K and other sources, eight Democrats did not vote on SB 140, and it failed on a 6-2 vote. The measure needed 11 votes to advance.
We're not fans of the hard-right policies pushed by Rep. Bob Ballinger (R-Hindsville), but give him credit for this, at least: He's lost 112 pounds since July 2016, down from a high of over 360 pounds. It's an effort that won Ballinger's family a $10,000 cash prize through a weight-loss wagering website, HealthyWage.com. "I have 7 kids and want to be around for a while," Ballinger said in a news release issued by the House of Representatives. "I knew I needed to do something."