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The Insider Jan. 20

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Facing facts The first of three billboards in the Arkansans for Human Rights group’s campaign to show the faces of gay Arkansans went up Monday at University and Twelfth Street. The billboard includes two photos, one of a businessman and a military man and the other of two women and a man in casual dress — all real people from Central Arkansas — and the title “Family, Coworkers, Neighbors … We are Gay Arkansans.” The organization and its website are named at the bottom of the billboard. Shaun Whybark, spokesman for AHR, said the billboards were paid for from private contributions and fund-raisers. The other two billboards will be erected in the next week at Highway 67 at the Kiehl exit in Sherwood and on La Harpe near the Baring Cross bridge in Little Rock. The people in the photos are unidentified, but one of them, Kathy Webb of Little Rock, appeared in the previous “We are the People” exhibit sponsored by the Center for Artistic Revolution. Arkansans for Human Rights is the organizer of the upcoming Feb. 14 “Opportunity to Commit Human Rights” event at the Little Rock Hilton. The event, a counterpoint to Gov. Mike Huckabee’s covenant marriage event at Alltel Arena, will include booths by area groups that support the cause of sex, gender and color-blind equal rights, including the NCCJ, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, Southerners on New Ground, the Women’s Project and others. Whybark said the Hilton event had been inaccurately reported as a protest of the covenant marriage event. He said it would be a way for people to get information and “mingle with fellow Arkansans.” He said the group is prepared to handle protestors at the Hilton event, which will be 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. and will also include food and a cash bar. Maybe someday The world’s largest retailer is famous for smallish wages. Some state governments are investigating to see how many Wal-Mart employees participate in government-funded health-care programs for low-income families. Wisconsin discovered that it was providing state health insurance for 3,765 people who were either Wal-Mart employees or the spouses and children of Wal-Mart employees, at an annual cost to taxpayers of $4.75 million. In Georgia, 10,000 children of Wal-Mart employees are in the state health program, at a cost of almost $10 million a year. A study in California showed taxpayers subsidizing more than $20 million worth of health care costs for Wal-Mart. The Arkansas Times wondered what the comparable figures are for Arkansas, Wal-Mart’s home state. An inquiry to the Department of Human Services brought this response from communications director Julie Munsell: “We are just now beginning to input an employer code for these clients, so we don’t have data available yet. We hope at some point in the future to have a complete database of employer codes to be able to extract data from.” Intraparty anger A Democratic state legislator says he and his colleagues are “pissed off, angry, frustrated, embarrassed, offended” (though not quite offended enough to be identified publicly) because of state Democratic Party chairman Ron Oliver’s testimony last week about a bill that would allow Arkansas’s political parties to vote for presidential nominees in February. The bill is sponsored by Republican Rep. Jeremy Hutchinson, but Democratic Reps. Janet Johnson and Denny Sumpter signed on as co-sponsors. According to the legislator we talked to, Johnson called Oliver in behalf of her colleagues to make sure he was fine with the bill, and he said he was. So it was a surprise when Oliver showed up later that same day and told the State Agencies Committee that he did not the support the bill. “It was painfully obvious that the only two people in the room not aware that we were talking about creating a caucus system like Iowa’s were Ron and Mike [Cook, the executive director of the Democratic Party]. They looked like they had been hit across the face with a baseball bat. We asked Ron if he had even read the bill, and he said he had glanced at it. That’s the most incompetent answer I could possibly imagine.” Our source says that Oliver’s performance has “galvanized” the Democrats on the State Agencies Committee: “If it’s a Ron Oliver proposal, it’s dead.” They also may oppose his bid to be re-elected party chair. UPDATE: The bill came out of committee Wednesday. Oliver said he favored the concept, but didn't want the party to have to foot the cost of a primary. The bill doesn't provide that money now, but it could be amended.

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