Quote of the Week:
"I think if Robert E. Lee were here today, he would say 'Move my birthday, and Dr. King deserves the recognition.'"
— Governor Hutchinson on his push to end Arkansas's practice of recognizing Lee along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the national King holiday. The governor wants to recognize the Confederate general on a date in October that would not constitute a new state holiday. Giving King his own day is "the right thing to do," the governor declared, adding later that Lee "was on the wrong side of history."
Legislator pleads guilty to bribery scheme
Days before the legislative session began, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a plea agreement by state Rep. Micah Neal (R-Springdale) in which he admitted that he "conspired with an Arkansas state senator to use their official positions to appropriate government money known as General Improvement Funds to a pair of nonprofit entities in exchange for bribes." Neal, who abruptly dropped out of a race for Washington County judge last year, conspired to direct a total of $600,000 to the entities in exchange for about $38,000 in kickbacks, the federal authorities said.
The DOJ did not name the state senator or the nonprofits, but Neal's plea agreement gives some identifying details. "Senator A" appears likely to be Sen. Jon Woods, a Springdale Republican who declined to run for re-election last year. Woods has not commented. "Entity A" identified by the documents seems likely to be Decision Point, a behavioral health organization that received $400,000 in General Improvement Fund money, while "Entity B was a nonprofit corporation operating a college located in Springdale." Ecclesia College, a tiny Christian school in Springdale, received almost $600,000 in GIF money during the time specified in the plea agreement; the college has denied directing money to Neal or any other legislator in exchange for receiving those funds.
The legislative GIF consists of surplus funds that lawmakers distribute to regional economic development districts around the state. Then, spending by those districts — including the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District, which provided the payments to Ecclesia and Decision Point — is typically guided by legislators. It's a practice that has long been criticized as a loophole for pork spending, and the governor has hopes to end the GIF entirely.
High times, high fees
The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission established the annual cost of a license to run one of the state's five soon-to-be-established cultivation facilities at $100,000 (that's distinct from the initial application fee for growers, which the panel set at $15,000 during its last meeting). In addition, the five-member commission will require any cultivation facility applicant to show a $1 million surety bond or assets worth $1 million and $500,000 in cash on hand before its application will be accepted. Commissioner Travis Story — who'd pushed for even higher financial hurdles to entry — said it was necessary to make sure potentially cultivators were "well-capitalized," considering marijuana growers can't access credit through banks due to the substance's federal prohibition.
Cotton on Obamacare: Replace law first
Congressional Republicans' plan for undoing the Affordable Care Act is to repeal the law now but wait for at least two years before replacing it, since the repeal wouldn't kick in immediately. U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton objected to the "repeal and delay" strategy last week, telling MSNBC's Chuck Todd, "I think when we repeal Obamacare we need to have the solution in place moving forward." Unfortunately, Cotton, like every other Republican in Congress, has failed to provide a solution for how to provide health insurance to the millions of Americans now covered by the ACA.
Judge resigns after misconduct allegations
Carroll County District Judge Timothy Parker resigned in the last days of his term and agreed to never serve on the bench again after an investigation by the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission into misconduct. Parker admitted to extending favors to defendants in his court who he knows through various connections, but disputed allegations that he traded preferential treatment in return for sexual favors from over a dozen women. He'd served by appointment since 2013.