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Waiver madness 

Also, job numbers looking up, equivocating on climate change and more.

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Quote of the Week:

"If the Texas law is struck down, it will put at risk the ability of states to properly protect its citizens. I am hopeful when the Court decides this case later this year it will recognize that Texas, Arkansas and all states have a legitimate interest in protecting the health of women and regulating the medical profession."

— Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, deploying doublespeak to defend a Texas law that would effectively shut down the majority of that state's abortion clinics in the name of "safety" (despite the facts that complications related to abortion are extraordinarily rare and that patients already have access to emergency medical care should they need it). Arkansas and 23 other states have joined in an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court urging it to uphold the Texas law.

Equivocating on climate change

Last week, the director of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality appeared before a U.S. Senate committee to complain about federal EPA regulations aimed at curbing climate change. Becky Keogh, who worked for petroleum and mining company BHP Billiton before Gov. Hutchinson appointed her to head the state's main environmental agency, is evidently still unsure whether the phenomenon is even real. When Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) asked her if carbon emitted from the burning of fossil fuels causes harmful changes to the environment, Keogh responded, "I think you can find scientists that say both — yes and no." Whitehead then asked Keogh what she says. "I am not an expert," she replied.

More importantly, that skepticism is reflected in policy. Keogh, along with Arkansas Public Service Commission Chairman Ted Thomas, last week announced that the state is halting its work on compliance with the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration's push to cut greenhouse gas output. The CPP faces an ongoing court challenge, but other states with less hostility to established science are making plans to comply with the carbon regulations in the interim.

Everything must go

The legislature's fiscal session is approaching, and thanks to some $100 million in federal money flowing to Arkansas this year from the expansion of Medicaid (also known as Obamacare), the state budget isn't suffering quite as much as it otherwise might in the wake of last year's regressive tax cuts. Still, some of the same Republicans who championed the 2015 tax cuts are now pushing to skewer select budget items. Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) suggested last week that the state should sell Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium and cut funding for public television. AETN cost the state $5.4 million last year, Hester complained. That's an especially unwise choice "at a time when the free market offers such an ample array of choices in telecommunications," he said.

Coming soon: Charter school showdown

The state Board of Education voted last Thursday to review expansion proposals from two Little Rock charter schools, eStem and LISA Academy. In doing so, the state board agreed to allow a public hearing before making a final decision on the matter, which has huge implications for the future of the Little Rock School District. If the two charter schools are allowed to expand their student capacity by several thousand seats as requested, the increased competition could sink the LRSD's chances of a turnaround in the coming years. The state board has not yet set a date for the hearing.

Waiver madness

Two school districts that have long been under control of the state Education Department will soon be released back to local control, the state Board of Education unanimously decided last week. The Pulaski County Special School District and the Helena-West Helena School District will be released from "fiscal distress" — a classification that led the state board to seize governance of the districts years ago — pending new school board elections this fall.

This is hopeful news for both places, but the state board's hearing on Helena-West Helena also contained a worrisome development: HWH administrators sought (and were mostly granted) a number of waivers to state law concerning everything from teacher licensure to sick leave and pay. Under a new law, the HWH district is eligible for such waivers because it competes with a charter school for students. Leveling the playing field with charters is a sympathetic goal — but not if it undermines good education policies in the process.

Jobs numbers looking up

The unemployment rate in Arkansas in January dropped to 4.4 percent, from 4.7 percent the previous month. That compares with a national rate of 4.9 percent.

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