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The River Valley Culture War

Road tax rejected, voucher proposal reborn, Trump's budget cuts


Quote of the Week:

"What we will have done is create a framework of education so our children will know the truth about who we are. They'll know the pain and suffering of war. They'll know the pain and suffering of being mistreated and [being] told, like I was told when I first went to the University of Arkansas, 'You cannot live in this dormitory because of the color of your skin.' ... Let's do something for our children. Let's do something for the state of Arkansas by creating some space where they can take time to talk about Robert E. Lee and what he did that day when he painfully surrendered and reached his hand across and said enough is enough."

— Rep. George McGill (D-Fort Smith), urging colleagues to vote for a bill that would remove official state recognition of Lee from the annual holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The House voted, 65-10, in favor of Senate Bill 519, which also requires Arkansas to develop a school curriculum on civil rights leaders and state Civil War history. The governor, who led the push for separating Lee from King Day, signed the bill into law on Tuesday.

The River Valley culture war

A group of conservative legislators, including Rep. Trevor Drown (R-Dover) and Sen. Greg Standridge (R-Russellville), are hell-bent on eliminating a department at Russellville's Arkansas Tech University, sparking protest from students and others. Last week, an amendment to Tech's budget was introduced that would strip all funding for the Department of Diversity and Inclusion. It was pulled down temporarily, perhaps due to the scores of Tech supporters who showed up at the Capitol early Wednesday morning — but it will likely be back.

The legislators' proximate complaint: An LGBTQ-advocacy student group, Spectrum, sponsored a sex-ed event in which one table evidently included sex toys. The diversity department did not sponsor the event, but Spectrum included the department's name on its flyer. In an interview with a local news outlet, Drown listed other grievances, including "transgender-friendly bathrooms" at Tech. Among those speaking out against the legislators' crusade was Russellville Mayor Randy Horton. "If we start here, what's the next step?" he asked. "Are we going to defund the entire university?"

Running on fumes

The most sensible way to raise money for roads is to tax drivers. But a legislative proposal to allow Arkansans to vote on a highway bond issue in 2018, to be paid for with an effective increase in the fuel tax, was rejected by the state House last week, 38-35. The fact that 20 representatives didn't vote means the measure isn't entirely dead, but the Republican majority is split on the proposal. Pragmatists recognize that maintaining the state's roads requires new revenue, but many anti-tax hardliners refuse to lend their support.

Voucher proposal reborn

Last week, the House voted down a contentious bill to create "education savings accounts" in Arkansas, which would give wealthy donors tax breaks in return for funding K-12 students' private school tuition and other educational expenses. This week, it was revived in the Senate and passed that chamber easily, with a few changes. Senate Bill 746 places a lower cap on the number of participating students that could be drawn from a single school district and prevents education savings account funds from being used for college tuition after the student graduates from high school. Nonetheless, it's still bad, bad news for public schools, which is why associations representing teachers, superintendents and school boards all oppose it.

Trump's budget cuts in Little Rock, by the numbers:

President Trump's proposed budget released last week includes a $54 billion increase in defense spending, offset by devastating cuts in the Environmental Protection Agency, the State Department and much more. If approved by Congress, those cuts would hit communities in Arkansas hard, as detailed by Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola in an email this week. Among the potential losses:

$1.3 Million - Community Development Block Grant funds to LR, which pay for health clinics and Meals on Wheels, among other programs. Trump wants to eliminate CDBG, which funds $23 million in projects across the state.

$516,000 - Funds from the HOME Investment Partnership Program, which provides affordable new housing and home rehabilitation. The program funds $8 million in projects statewide, Stodola said.

400 - The number of AmeriCorps members who served in Little Rock over the past year. Trump's budget would eliminate the program, which pays young people a small amount to work up to two years in nonprofit and educational institutions in return for some alleviation of college debt.

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