Archive for David Koon

BDSM in Arkansas

"John" and "Sarah" are an average married couple in their mid-30s. Both educated professionals, they live in the 'burbs of Central Arkansas, raising a family on a quiet, tree-lined street. The difference between them and most people, however, is that behind closed doors, they're in a long-term BDSM relationship, an acronym that stands for bondage, domination, sadism and masochism.

"John" and "Sarah" are an average married couple in their mid-30s. Both educated professionals, they live in the 'burbs of Central Arkansas, raising a family on a quiet, tree-lined street. The difference between them and most people, however, is that behind closed doors, they're in a long-term BDSM relationship, an acronym that stands for bondage, domination, sadism and masochism. John is the dominant, Sarah the submissive. John makes the decisions about almost every aspect of their lives, and his decisions, with few exceptions, are final. That is, Sarah says, not just the way she wants it, but the way she needs it to be. John's rules provide her structure, she said, and their BDSM play — heavy impact to her body with a variety of implements — provides both a connection to her partner and a euphoric endorphin high that she describes in terms of floating away from her worries. For him, play provides a safe, loving outlet for the sadism that has been a part of his life and relationships since he was in his teens.

Can you do a relationship like this all the time?

John: Absolutely. We do. All day, every day.

Sarah: All day every day. He is the boss. That's the way I need it, and that's the way he needs it.

John: My mistake in previous relationships was finding someone who thought they needed it, but they didn't. Before this, I was looking for dominant women, and couldn't figure out why I fought with them all the damn time. I always knew I liked hurting people. But I just thought it was something wrong with me. That's the sadist side of it. When I started getting sexual, I would find partners who liked that kind of thing. If it was someone who didn't like that at all, I usually didn't stay with them very long. I like kinky partners.

People who aren't into BDSM are going to hear "I knew I liked hurting people," and they're going to think you're a serial killer or something.

John: Sadism is a part of me, honestly. I don't have to build up to it. It's always there. That's a good way to say it.

Sarah: The BDSM play is a productive way for him to express that part of his personality with a consensual partner. So instead of being a jackass and driving people crazy at work and trying to pick a fight with someone all the time just because he needs to feed that part of him, this is a healthy outlet for that. It's something I need. So we feed off of each other.

Sarah, you said you knew early on that you were into BDSM?

Sarah: As a child, I remember playing with bondage and that kind of thing, just knowing that I liked those things, but not really knowing what it was.

How old are we talking here?

Sarah: Probably like, 8. Seven or 8?

And is it common in BDSM circles that people knew they were different when they were very young?

Sarah: I hear that a lot.

John: People that I've talked to about it, they just always knew.

Sarah: One of our play partners was telling us the other day that he would be playing cowboys and Indians with his friends when he was 6 or 7, and he would be upset because they wouldn't tie him up tight enough.

That, to me, sounds a lot like what LGBT people say about their sexuality. Like this is a sexual orientation that you're born with. Do you believe that this is a sexual orientation?

John: Absolutely not. It's something you're born to, but I don't think it's a sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is bisexual, gay, lesbian, whatever. To me, this is a lifestyle. I think what changed it for me was, before I got into the lifestyle and the community, I didn't know there was nothing wrong with being this way. I thought there was something wrong with me. But then, once I realized that there was an outlet for it and a place that it was acceptable and even wanted, then I knew that's where I fit in. That was my people, my tribe. When we first met, [Sarah] asked me to play and we played. We played and after the first or second time, I told her, 'You're a painslut!' She said, "No, I'm not!" Yes, she is. She just didn't realize her level of masochism. But I bet if you think back when you were younger, you did enjoy pain.

Sarah: I did. I was always eraser burning my arm or putting straight pins in the tips of my fingers, just because I thought it was fun. I don't know.

Sarah, were you worried that something was wrong with you?

Sarah: Not then, but as I started getting older, I started learning more about what society expected. Then I started feeling like maybe there was maybe something wrong with me for liking that. I didn't feel bad when I was doing it. I liked it!

John, what is the appeal of being dominant for you?

I don't know that "appeal" is a good word for it. Maybe, why do I do it? I do it because that's just the way I am. What do I enjoy about it? I enjoy the control. I enjoy the structure. I get structure when I give her structure. In the play between us, when I say I want this and this is the way it's going to be, we may talk about it, but at the end of the day, that's just the way it's going to be. This is the first relationship I've had that from someone that wants that. Everybody else just fought and argued all the time. Having that symbiotic relationship is really nice. It's a good balance.

Sarah, how about you? What do you get out of it? What do you enjoy about it?

I really crave rules and structure. I'm so chaotic in my head. I need somebody to be there to try to help keep me on track. He does that for me. If I feel like I'm lost — and I'm about to start crying right now — if I ever need anything, he's there for me. I've never had that before. [At this point in the interview, she did cry, and had to take a minute to compose herself.]

In modern relationships, "controlling" is kind of a dirty word. Is it seen as a positive in BDSM relationships?

John: I think they're making controlling and domineering the same as dominance. Domineering is, I'm going to manipulate you, force you, make you do it. Dominance is, I'm going to ask you if you want this. Yes? OK, then here's what we're going to do. Domineering is nonconsensual. Domination is a choice.

Sarah: To someone who doesn't know better, that would sound like a disrespectful exchange between us. That it's going to be his way, and that's just the way it is. It's totally respectful. We've agreed to these terms.

John: Yes, we actually have a contract. We negotiated it. We've revised and changed some as we've gone along, either because it didn't work or it wasn't appropriate or didn't apply. Actually, it's about time to revisit that again. It's been a while.

Sarah: Mutual respect is the secret to success in our relationship. I get the safety and security from him, too. That's something else I need. I need to feel safe. I need to feel like someone has my back. The structure and just the way our household is gives me that.

Let's talk about your play. What does a "scene" look like for you?

John: Our scenes are usually impact play. Impact play would be taking something and hitting a person with it. It varies from very light and sensual, all the way up to extreme. You can break the skin. We also do bondage, which could be anything: chains, ropes, mental bondage, as in "Stay in that position. Don't move." We very rarely mix sex with it. If it is, it's usually after. Very rarely during. That's just the way we do it. We both believe that so it works out.

Sarah: It's two separate things to me.

That's going to surprise a lot of people, that BDSM can be distinct from sex.

John: Yeah, people assume it's all about sex.

Sarah: Yes. But as a good friend of ours said, "I could go without sex and continue with the BDSM, but I couldn't do it the other way around." That's really true for me. I need the BDSM more than I need sex. Definitely. And I like sex a lot.

So what do you get out of play?

John: I get to release the sadism. To fulfill that need, in a consensual, constructive way that isn't hurting anybody in a bad way. I also get pleasure from the fact that I know she likes it. We do feed off each other when we're playing.

Sarah: I get physical enjoyment from pain. Actually, to the point of orgasm at times. People who aren't this way can't understand. I didn't understand. There was a time when I didn't know what this thing was called and had to try to ask somebody to hurt me on purpose. I was so relieved when I found the lifestyle — to realize that I wasn't crazy. That's something that I think a lot of people don't know: that there are people who actually get enjoyment from pain. There's subspace, too.

Tell me about "subspace."

Sarah: I have a pretty stressful life in general. It's by my choosing, so I'm not complaining. I have a job I enjoy and I'm in school full time. I love what I'm studying and what I'm doing. But I've got a lot of deadlines and only a little bit of time to get to them. I get stressed out. A good release from that is going into subspace. During impact play, especially for me, it's kind of like a feeling of euphoria. Relaxation. Right as you're drifting off to take a nap, that floaty part? Like that.

John: It's the same sensation that long-distance runners get. The endorphin rush as you're exercising. It's hard on your body to run long distances, and they get that same feeling. At least, when I was running, I did.

That's going to confuse a lot of people. That you can be beaten ...

John: ... and it makes you high? Yeah.

Sarah: It's the endorphins from the pain. But there does come a point where those wear off and the floaty time is over.

John: I think a good way to relate it to the average vanilla is that it's like an adrenaline rush. Something happens and you get scared, and there's that rush, then afterwards you're exhausted. You used up all your energy in that rush.

Can BDSM play be dangerous?

John: Absolutely. With some of the things like knifeplay, she could sneeze and we'd be in the hospital trying to explain a wound. Nerve damage from rope is a danger. Damage from the circulation being cut off too long. Even impact can be dangerous. You can hit someone in the kidney. It doesn't take much.

Sarah: There's emotional danger, too. You have to know how to deal with that stuff.

John: That's true. There are landmines and triggers. I triggered her two or three times with play.

Sarah: It's usually a surprise to us both when it happens.

John: Yes, we had no idea until it happened. It's scary. I was using my belt on her, but I just hit her wrong or she was not in the right headspace. We stopped immediately and I figured out what was going on.

Sarah: I had some periods of abuse as a child, and it came back all of a sudden — all the years of that just rushed back like it happened yesterday. [The belt] landed just right in a certain spot. It's never happened before or since, and we've used the same implement. It was the craziest thing. He was very patient and understanding. He let me cry and get it out. We talked about it and learned from it and moved on. It was actually a good thing for me. I grew from that.

What do people get wrong about BDSM relationships?

Sarah: They think that it's abuse. That's probably the first thing.

John: That, and that it's all about sex. That's the top two things. They assume it's an abusive relationship or she's not saying —

That she's afraid to seek help, or mentally damaged to the point that she can't see that it's abuse?

John: Yes. "You're so fucked up that you can't see that you're being abused." But people in abusive relationships don't have a choice.

Sarah: The minute he treats me like I don't have a choice, I won't be here anymore. I always have a choice. I have committed myself to him, but if he ever were abusive and wouldn't listen, I would leave.

How many people are in the community in Arkansas?

Sarah: I'd say thousands. We're all around you. You just don't know.

John: It's kind of like "Fight Club." You could be working right now with someone who is active in the lifestyle. It could be the person sitting in the cubicle next to you, or the buddy you go to work with and get coffee with every morning. We're just normal people. We're everyday people. I would say thousands would be a good number.

Is there still a stigma that keeps people in hiding?

John: I think so. But the whole "Fifty Shades of Grey" phenomenon, even though I don't agree with it, has gotten people more curious about it. That's good and bad. It has its pros and cons. It brings people into the community with unrealistic expectations.

Can you do this the rest of your life?

John: Not "can I?" I will do this.

Sarah: I must do this.

John: We've always had the stigma that there's something wrong with us. But I'm free. I can do what I enjoy. We have a mutually respectful relationship where we both get our needs met. To me, that's normal. All the people out there who are uptight, that have sex in the dark [in the] missionary [position], who never experiment, or learn, or act on things that are different, and they're shoving their kinks down and being miserable for the rest of their life? That's abnormal to me. But I think that's a good majority of people. This is freedom.

Sarah: People are so concerned with whatever everyone else thinks about them. I find that the more I let go and just live the life that's authentic to me and who I really am, the happier I am, the freer I am, and the more control I have over my own life.

Asexuality in Arkansas

The following is taken from an interview with an Arkansas college student, who — after a series of frustrating relationships — began to identify as asexual in his early 20s.

The following is taken from an interview with an Arkansas college student, who — after a series of frustrating relationships — began to identify as asexual in his early 20s. Asexuality, or "ace," as some involved call themselves, is an increasingly accepted sexual orientation, especially among the millennial generation. Now in his mid-20s and soon to graduate, the young man we spoke to has been in a committed relationship with a non-asexual woman for the past two years. Surprisingly, he said he has sex on occasion and enjoys the closeness of it, but has never known what it is like to have a sexual attraction to another person, or even a libido in the accepted sense of the word.

I feel like I've always kind of been this way, but it was something that didn't make sense until it did make sense. I don't use this terminology anymore, but at the time, I could never figure out what was wrong with me. I can find people attractive, in the sense that I find them pretty. I like the way they look. But I never really have the compulsion to have sex with someone. I'm assuming you're heterosexual? The same way you can look at a guy and think: "That's a good-looking guy!" That's how I am for everyone.

I just kind of felt like I was broken. First and foremost, I was afraid that no one would want to be with someone like me. The teen years aren't that fun to begin with, so it was troubling for a while. I had trouble doing sexual activities with my partners, and it put significant strain on my relationships. It's easy for the woman to interpret that as not finding her attractive. But once I had a name to put to it and understood what was happening, it became more of a relief.

Like a lot of people, I didn't actually know asexuality existed; that this was actually a thing you could be. But eventually, it all just kind of clicked into place and it was like, oh, that makes sense. I found out about asexuality because I was explaining all this to a close friend, and they were like: "That sounds like you're asexual. I don't want to force a label on you, but it really sounds like you're ace."

I guess the kind of upside to being an asexual is that nobody really notices. My most recent relationship has been two years now. For all the world, I look like I'm straight, but I just don't want sex.

Asexual people do have sex sometimes. The way I explain that to people is, even if you never felt hungry, you'd sometimes eat food. Food tastes good. I can absolutely feel love. I'm a hopeless romantic! It's not any different from falling in love when you're gay or straight or what have you. It's not even minus the physical element. I still love to be touched. But there's no impulse to actually have sex. This varies across a wide array of asexuality. After I kind of figured out what was going on, I found ways to fulfill my partner's needs. It's not something I particularly enjoy. It's more like a chore. I know asexuals who are actually repulsed by the physical; repulsed by sex. And I know asexuals who have multiple partners. Just because you don't feel a need for something doesn't mean you can't enjoy it. I'm not some Catholic monk sitting in a monastery. In my case, it's not even something I'm particularly opposed to doing. It's not something I hate doing, it's just something I don't particularly want to do. My girlfriend asking if I want to have sex is like someone asking if I want to play video games. It's a potentially fun thing to do. I don't feel the satisfaction of it. I still have dopamine. I still have serotonin. Those still get released into my brain. I'm still a human being. But to me, the main appeal is the closeness.

I really hate the argument that asexual people "just haven't met the right person." It's kind of like when someone says they're bisexual, and someone says, "Oh, you just haven't met the right person!" My partner isn't asexual. She's actually bisexual. I broached [my asexuality] early on in the relationship, that there would be nights that she might want to do something, and it wasn't going to happen. I would just say no. It kind of leads to a kind of cliche role reversal: "Not tonight, honey," that kind of thing. I told her about two or three weeks after it became clear that it was going to be a serious relationship, instead of just a fling. My partner has a somewhat strained relationship with sex to begin with. She's had abusive partners. So to her, it was kind of a plus to have a partner who she never has to worry about forcing themselves on her. She was understanding, and yeah, there's some nights she goes to bed frustrated, but she loves me. Love is more important than sex.

Something a lot of the asexual community is trying to get out to people: You're not broken. You don't need to be fixed. You don't need to be diagnosed. It's just who you are, and it's OK. If I had to give advice to a person who believes they might be asexual, I'd tell them not to worry about it. It's OK. People will still want to be with you. People will still love you for the person that you are. Sex is not as important as society wants us to think it is.

The size of the community is hard to estimate, because asexuals can seamlessly appear heteronormative. But most of the polls I've seen say that asexuality is about 3 to 6 percent of the population. I personally know about 12 to 16 people who are asexual or demisexual. Asexuality is kind of a catchall for varying degrees of asexuality. But the best way I can explain varying demisexuality is that it functions the same way as asexuality up until the point a really strong emotional connection is made with someone. And then that person will begin to be sexually attractive to you. I personally am a little bit foggy on what it is as well, but that's how I had it explained to me.

I can't see this changing about me. If you'll forgive me the quote: Through God, all things are possible. But I don't see it changing. I find the idea of wanting to have sex — that need to have sex — to be absolutely ... I can't imagine what that feels like. It's one of those things that's normal from your side of the fence, but from my side of the fence, it's sounds weird. I've had it described to me as a hunger. Like needing to eat? I'm sitting here watching television, watching "Game of Thrones." It gets to a sex scene and I'm sitting there, tapping my foot.

Also, I'd like to note that I hate the stupid plant joke. There's a joke that you hear every time you tell someone you're asexual, "Oh, does that mean you reproduce by budding?" It's funny the first two or three times, but after 20 or 30 times, it starts getting really annoying. It's always phrased the exact same way, like they're reading it out of handbook. Personally, I intend to adopt, for moral reasons. I don't want to create children if there are children that need homes.

‘A Q&A with new UALR Chancellor Andrew Rogerson

He comes to the campus at time of change.

University of Arkansas at Little Rock Chancellor Andrew Rogerson took the reins of the university on Sept. 1, succeeding Joel Anderson, who had held the job for 13 years. A native of Scotland, Rogerson holds a Ph.D. in protozoan ecology, and was previously the provost and vice president of academic affairs at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif. Sonoma State is part of the University of California system. He had previously worked in administrative posts at universities in England, Canada and the U.S., including Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va.; The South Dakota School of Mines in Rapid City, S.D.; and California State University, Fresno.

Rogerson comes to UALR at a time of change for the university, with steadily rising tuitions in the University of Arkansas system and fluctuating enrollment at UALR. He also inherits a controversial project going up on the south side of the campus: the eStem Public Charter Schools' new high school. Critics say it will pull still more students from the already beleaguered Little Rock School District. The project, which will gut and renovate UALR's Larson Hall and occupy part of nearby Ross Hall, is scheduled for completion by the 2017-18 school year. The Walton Family Foundation, which plans to invest over $250 million to construct new charter schools around the nation in coming years, is financing the construction of the eStem High School with an $11.4 million noninterest loan that must be repaid in 20 years.

Encouraging the redevelopment of the areas around the UALR campus through the University District Partnership was a stated priority of former Chancellor Joel Anderson. Will it remain a priority on your watch?

I think that's consistent with the mission of a metropolitan and urban university. I think the role of this kind of university, which we are proud to be in the coalition of metropolitan and urban universities — CMUU — it really is two missions, if you like, that coexist. One is economic development, which is to produce a more educated workforce for the city. The second part is to revitalize neighborhood connections and make the university a real driver of change.

So you see the role of a university like the University of Arkansas at Monticello or the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville as different from the role of a university like UALR?

Absolutely. I think we're a very unique entity here. We are the only university in Arkansas that's in a city. The distinction you often make with a metropolitan university is that it's not just geographically in the city, it's of the city. In other words, it really is an integral part of changing the face of the city. I firmly believe that unless you've got something like 60 percent of your population with some form of higher education, you're not going to be a sustainable, vibrant city of the future. That's a number that's been bandied around in other areas. The city of Louisville is a good example of that. They've really realized that they need to get the level of education up in the city. They're calling their project "55 degrees." Instead of calling it 60 percent of the population, they've put a number on it —that they need 55,000 more degrees in that city to make it vibrant and viable. That's what we can do, which makes us very different. Students going to Fayetteville are often not coming to reside in Little Rock. So we're it. We can really make a difference in this city. Which is why we've been reaching out, which is something you've probably seen in other press, about really to try and reach local high schools and show that there's a population of students there whose parents have probably never seen a pathway to their local university because of cost. Of course, if someone applies themselves and actually goes to their local university and applies for all the federal aid and state aid that's available to them, then you can actually cover the cost of your tuition, then we can get scholarship money to help, or work study, etc. It's a new population, I think, and it's addressing that huge area in education, which is affordability and accessibility. These are the two words out there dominating higher education across America. We're really tackling that head on.

In May, the UA system approved a 3.5 percent increase in tuition and fees, which will bring the annual undergraduate tuition and mandatory fees for an undergrad attending UALR to $8,633 per year in 2017-18. Is tuition too high at this point?

I don't believe it is. Any level of tuition is too high as far as I'm concerned. I'm coming from the California system where we had the master plan of the 1960s, where literally education was free. That has been eroded away. We still have this strangeness that we're not allowed in California to call it tuition; you still have to call it a fee. But that fee has been creeping up and there is now tuition in California as there is across America. I think the level we've reached here is still manageable. It's regrettable, but it's manageable, because the state hasn't disinvested in education as much as some states. You can look around at some problem systems: Colorado, Arizona, Louisiana. We still have fairly stable state funding, which is allowing us to keep the cost down. Remember, students who are financially disadvantaged can apply for things they're eligible for and really can cover that, or most of that, cost, particularly if you live at home, which is one of the biggest costs of education these days. That's why we're pushing for that segment. We're not going to be a university that only caters to local students, but it certainly could be a population we can bring in here and help the city in that regard. I think it's also fair to point out that UA-Little Rock gives out a lot of scholarship money. Last year we gave out $17 million in scholarships. We're very generous, and we also give out a lot of work-study. So we're very aware of the need to make education affordable.

Some see UALR's partnership with eStem Charter School as the college helping the chief competitor of the Little Rock School District at the expense of the district. Do you believe eStem's planned expansion on the UALR campus — which will draw hundreds of students out of the LRSD — will harm the district? Is that a concern?

Let me answer this by pointing out that I inherited eStem. It had nothing to do with me. But as I reflect on it, it's a good thing. Remember, it is by lottery, so it's a fair system that's going to give equal opportunity to all students in Little Rock and the region. I think it's a good thing that it's got a STEM focus, because what this country needs more than anything is more science, technology, engineering, mathematics students. I think the fact that we have, come the fall of '17, 450 high school students on this campus taking courses here is going to steer many of them into a degree at this university. I think the big picture is we're going to have more students staying in this region, being educated in the STEM fields. I think ultimately that's going to be a bigger benefit than any concerns about the dilution of the public school system.

Are you personally a supporter of charter schools?

I like the idea of free choice for any kind of education that seems to work for the particular family involved. In that sense, charter schools are OK with me.

The terms of UALR's contract with eStem and the Walton Family Foundation set the lease with the charter school at $1 per year for the property they'll occupy on campus. Meanwhile, UALR is allowing eStem to use a significant amount of real property, including 15,000 square feet of space in Ross Hall, a building currently in use by the college as classrooms and offices. Why is it in UALR's interest to give such a large amount of space to another entity, especially given that critics say charter school expansion will hurt the LRSD?

I'm actually not that clear on how much space we're giving away, but I can say that one thing we have on this campus is a lot of classroom space. As I understand it, the small amount of space we're giving away for the expansion — because most of the construction is going to be new — that small amount of classroom space wasn't needed by the university. That's even with a campus plan that's hoping we'll grow to at least 15,000 students.

Has UALR received any funding or other resources or support, formally or informally, from the Walton Family Foundation since the eStem deal was struck?

I don't know for sure. I think not. Remember, that was money to fund eStem, which is in some ways independent of the university.

This is a campus that still teaches music, arts, English. Are those disciplines still important in the 21st century?

Absolutely. Let's step back from it and go, what does an undergraduate degree hope to give a student? If you do a psychology degree, the chances of becoming a psychologist are probably 1 percent. So most undergraduates, if they don't go on to graduate school to specialize, are going to be going out into the workforce. So if we give them the skill set regardless of the discipline, they're going to be ready for the workforce. You might want to think about it as: A major is just a way of giving someone a database in which to analyze and drill down into and work with. The nature of that database is somewhat irrelevant in terms of the subject area. We have to be giving our students those critical thinking skills and those collaborative skills to make them team players. That can come regardless of what discipline they're in. So I do firmly believe in a more liberal education for the undergraduates. I don't think the nature of your undergraduate degree determines what you're going to be in life. I don't think if you get a degree in history that you're going to have to find a job to be a historian. I think it gives you the right skill sets to find employment in many different areas. I would also hope that in the course of giving students a signature experience, which is making them sort of analyze the subject area, that they're then going to be energized about that subject, and then they'll consider: I want to go to graduate school. Yes, we do want to pay attention to computer scientists and biologists who can go on in those areas. But I don't have any problem pushing all our other liberal degree subject areas. This city needs as many artists and philosophers as they do computer scientists. If you want to be a vibrant city, you need to have a range.

Governor Hutchinson has proposed a change in the higher education funding model that rewards "performance" in terms of how well a college does in meeting goals such as percentage of incoming students who actually graduate, etc. How do you think this change will affect UALR?

It's a very complicated formula at the moment that's still being refined. Of course, it's based on metrics such as time to graduation, but it also has metrics in there about how many underserved students are you serving, how many transfer students are you managing to graduate and so on. So it's a complicated formula in many ways. The versions I've seen don't disadvantage the university in any way. The funding is going to be sort of similar. But what it really does do, and I think this is a good thing about it, is that it really makes us sit up and say, we have to do business differently. Of course that is what we should be doing anyway. We need to get more students out instead of worrying about how many students we're bringing in, which is what performance-based funding is all about. So we're going to be looking at the number of students we're actually graduating. I think the formula is still evolving. It perhaps will evolve even after it's rolled out, but it's not going to be a huge impact on us. It does give us two years to start looking at how we do business. I think that's a good thing. Really, it's not about how many students you enroll. It's about how many you graduate.

For a longer version of this interview, with topics including the proposed closing of Franklin Elementary, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' proposal to make college tuition very low-cost or free, and Rogerson's views on "campus carry" of concealed firearms, visit the online version of this article at arktimes.com/rogersonq&a

The 91st Arkansas General Assembly: It’s going to be a beast

Some legislation to look for, and how to speak your mind.

The 91st General Assembly convened on Monday, and the next two months will bring all sorts of new laws to Arkansas. With a supermajority in both houses, the Republican agenda will prevail. What we describe here are bills already introduced or likely to find their way into the hopper.

Perhaps you would like to add your voice to the decision-making at the state Capitol. State Rep. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville) has published on his Facebook page the "2017 Determined Constituent Guide to the Arkansas State Capitol," which provides phone numbers to reach legislators (682-2902 for the Senate, 682-6211 for the House) and the governor (682-2345), names of the leadership in both houses, when the houses convene (1:30 p.m.), how to communicate with your legislator, and where Capitol offices are located and where committees meet.

House committee meetings are live-streamed, and you can send a note asking to meet with a legislator via Red Coat assistants.

Find the schedule of committee meetings at arkleg.state.ar.us.

The upcoming legislation we address here includes bills to prohibit transgender people from using the bathroom of the gender they identify with; cut taxes; make it harder for women to get abortions; allow guns on college campuses; make it harder for people without specific forms of photo identification to vote; punish "sanctuary" cities and campuses that adopt policies of tolerance toward undocumented immigrants; and make it easier to fire teachers. What the legislature will do about Medicaid expansion remains to be seen.

Bathroom bill

In a state with a long history of legislative train wrecks, it's hard to imagine one more easily avoidable than the prospect that the legislature may pass an anti-LGBT "bathroom bill" that forces a transgender person to use the public restroom that corresponds to the sex on his or her birth certificate.

The potential economic hit the state could take over such legislation is already writ large in North Carolina. North Carolina House Bill 2, passed in March 2016 and signed into law by now-former Gov. Pat McCrory, led to boycotts and scaling back of hundreds of millions of dollars in business investment in the state, along with public condemnation by inclusive, 21st century employers like PayPal, Apple and Yelp. That's in addition to the $100 million impact estimated by the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority when the National Basketball Association decided to pull the 2017 NBA All-Star Game out of North Carolina in reaction to HB 2. And the September announcement that the NCAA would yank seven NCAA tournament games from Greensboro (an estimated $51 million impact). And rock legend Bruce Springsteen's April 2016 decision to cancel a Greensboro show (to the tune of another estimated $700,000 impact). All told, Forbes estimates the economic impact of HB 2 to the Tar Heel State at somewhere in the neighborhood of $600 million so far. It's a number that seems destined to keep climbing as obstinate legislators there continue to resist and foot-drag on efforts at repeal, even in the wake of the ouster of McCrory in November.

Nonetheless, the economic hurt laid on North Carolina since the coming of HB 2 appears to be an object lesson that's going unheeded across the nation. So far, legislators in Alabama, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington have introduced similar bills. Next door in Texas, legislators introduced a bill similar to North Carolina's HB 2 soon after the new year, even though the Texas Association of Business issued a warning last year that the passage of a "bathroom bill" could create a backlash that costs the Texas economy up to $8.5 billion and 185,000 jobs.

With far-right legislators in Arkansas undoubtedly considering playing a round of Raleigh Roulette by filing an HB 2-style bill of their own, one of those who appears to be heeding the lessons of North Carolina is Governor Hutchinson. At a Jan. 4 press conference to discuss his legislative agenda in the coming session, Hutchinson said that he believes the issue of transgender people using the restroom of their choice is not "a problem" in Arkansas, and made it clear that a bathroom bill is not something he would support. While Hutchinson didn't say he'd veto such a bill, he did say he had been in touch with "legislators of interest" who might file legislation on the issue.

"I would choose to judge the issue on its merits and what's needed in the state," Hutchinson said. "I think the compelling arguments are: One, we don't have a problem. Secondly, we're awaiting more information from the courts and the Trump administration, and I do not believe that we ought to be engaged in legislation when there's not a problem."

House Speaker Jeremy Gillam (R-Judsonia), who appeared with Hutchinson and Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren (R-Gravette) at the press conference, said that he'd want to see "quantifiable data," before he could reach a conclusion on whether a bathroom bill was needed. Hendren added that if people do something obscene in a public restroom, they deserve to be harshly punished, especially if children are involved, but said of a bathroom bill: "Now if we need a bathroom bill to prevent something like that from occurring, I don't know. ... If it's punitive, if it's something completely unreasonable, then probably not."

Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Randy Zook agrees with the governor that an anti-trans bathroom bill is unneeded in the state. "There doesn't appear to be a problem," Zook said on the first day of the 2017 legislative session. "If one materializes, then we'd probably want to try to deal with it." Asked if his agreement with the governor on the issue is based on the economic fallout seen in North Carolina, Zook said the potential for a similar scenario in Arkansas certainly exists.

"We would like to try to avoid any unfavorable publicity for the state," Zook said. "Lots of economic activity could be negatively affected with unnecessary or unwarranted legislation. Again, until there's a problem, we just think there's no problem."

David Koon

Education policy

When Governor Hutchinson laid out his agenda for the 2017 session, education was one of three categories he prioritized (the others being "economic development" and a grab bag of reforms dubbed "efficiencies"). Yet most of the initiatives the governor listed were modest, wonky and uncontroversial: invest $5 million more in computer science, improve phonics instruction for teachers, rework scholarships targeted toward community college students, and deliver a welcome $3 million boost in pre-K funding to improve teacher quality. He made no mention of hot-button items like charter schools or vouchers. This is notable both because education is the largest item in the state budget — K-12 and higher ed together comprise almost two-thirds of general revenue spending — and is the subject of intense policy debates. Expect more substantial (and contentious) proposals to emerge from the General Assembly in the coming weeks.

The most significant school-related legislation filed so far concerns the labor law that establishes due process for firing certain school employees, the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act. Reps. Bruce Cozart (R-Hot Springs) and Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle) filed a pair of bills in early December that would chip away at the law. Cozart's House Bill 1017 would allow the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act to be waived in a public school or school district that has been taken over by the state Education Department; the Little Rock School District is the most prominent example of such a district. House Bill 1029, authored by Lowery, would exclude principals, assistant principals and central office staff with multi-year contracts from protection under the law.

In December, Cozart, who chairs the House Education Committee, told the Times his bill was necessary to help the state improve academic outcomes at troubled schools. "It doesn't have to be used, but it would give [the State Board of Education, which authorizes state takeovers] an opportunity to use that tool," Cozart said. "I'm not against teachers, don't get me wrong ... but sometimes when a state takes over a school, there are issues with teachers." He said the bill was not targeting the LRSD in particular.

Brenda Robinson, president of the Arkansas Education Association, said, "the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act simply outlines the process by which a school may remove a teacher from employment for a valid reason. ... This bill ignores that fact and chooses to blame and shame teachers." Robinson said legislators "need to focus on what helps students the most: recruiting the right people into teaching, providing ongoing training, compensating teachers appropriately, developing reliable ways to measure teacher effectiveness and giving teachers the resources to help every child succeed."

Cozart introduced a similar proposal in 2015 as part of a larger bill to establish "achievement districts" in Arkansas, which would allow the state to privatize districts or schools under state takeover by assigning their operations to nonprofit charter management organizations. He pulled the legislation after opposition emerged from groups like the Arkansas School Boards Association and the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, which represents school superintendents. Many education advocates are anticipating the return of an "achievement district" bill this session.

Mike Mertens, assistant executive director at the AAEA, said his organization "would have concerns" if such legislation reemerged, though he cautioned that "we would have to see exactly what was in the bill." Mertens said the AAEA opposed Cozart's 2015 legislation because it "took away local control" and included no appeal process for a local school board. Should a privatization measure be filed, the AAEA and the teachers union (the AEA) will likely be critical in opposing it, as will grassroots opposition organized by the Arkansas Citizens First Congress.

As for the governor's initiatives, there is one in particular that bears a closer look. Hutchinson is pushing a new "outcomes-based funding formula" for higher education, which will tie college and university funding to graduation rates and other metrics. Rather than simply subsidizing institutions based on student enrollment, the state would (theoretically) hold them more accountable for delivering measurable results. There are reasons to be skeptical of such a plan — it potentially creates an incentive to inflate grades and a disincentive to enroll more academically disadvantaged students — but the state's colleges and universities are solidly lined up in support of the proposal, in part because Hutchinson has pledged a $10 million increase to higher ed funding if his model is adopted.

—Benjamin Hardy

Tax cuts

Since Republicans gained majorities in the state House of Representatives and Senate in 2012, they've made slashing taxes on the rich a priority. In the last two general legislative sessions, GOP legislators pushed through a massive cut on taxes on capital gains, a benefit overwhelmingly enjoyed by the wealthiest Arkansans, and they reduced the income tax burden on all but the working poor. To his credit, Governor Hutchinson wants a $50 million tax cut, as part of his proposed $5.5 billion budget, directed at the people who were left out of previous cuts — those with taxable income of less than $21,000. That's laudable in spirit. Arkansas has one of the more regressive tax environments in the country. Households making more than $330,000 (i.e. the 1 percent) pay less than 6 percent of their income in local and state taxes, while those making less than $16,000 pay 12 percent of theirs in local and state taxes, according to Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. Much of that disparity is the result of the state's relatively high sales tax. Low-income workers do pay income tax — in 2013, some 540,000 Arkansas families with net income of less than $21,000 paid $115 million in state income tax — but they pay a greater share of their income in sales taxes. Low-income workers would be helped more by a state Earned Income Tax Credit, tied to the federal EITC, which takes into account workers' income and number of dependents. It should have bipartisan appeal. It rewards work. It's a proven ladder out of poverty. And, because most low and middle-income taxpayers spend their tax refunds, it's money that's quickly cycled back into the state economy.

If only that was the limit of the coming debate.

Instead, a number of legislators want to see a significantly larger tax cut. Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) has proposed a $105 million tax cut. It would eliminate income taxes for people making less than $21,000 and adjust the tax tables to benefit middle and upper income families. There's been additional talk of $200 million and $300 million tax cuts. Rep. Charlie Collins (R-Fayetteville) has floated the idea of repealing a law passed in 2013 that reduces the sales tax on groceries from 1.5 percent to 0.125 percent once the state is no longer obligated to make $65 million annual desegregation payments to Pulaski County schools. That's scheduled to happen after the end of fiscal year 2018. Collins wants instead to use that money to further cut taxes on those making more than $75,000 per year. The governor has said (rightly, again) that such a repeal would be viewed as a tax increase. UPDATE: After this article was filed, Hester and Collins said Hutchinson's proposal to establish a commission to develop a longterm strategy to reduce taxes had persuaded them to wait to pursue larger cuts.

There are two problems to consider simultaneously when it comes these sorts of tax cut proposals, said Bill Kopsky, executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel. There's ensuring that an already regressive tax system doesn't become more so, and then there's working to prevent further cuts to state services and infrastructure.

"We've really slashed revenue in the last several sessions," Kopsky said. "That's left a lot of priority needs for the state's future underfunded — whether you look at [K-12 education], higher ed, the legitimate needs of the highway system, increased funding for pre-K, or after-school programs proven to help all kids. ... We're not investing in the types of things that make families stronger and makes kids succeed and would make Arkansas attractive to economic development."

In a state where the constitution requires a balanced budget and that K-12 education be "adequately" funded, there isn't much wiggle room in the budget. Education, health and human services and prisons account for more than 90 percent of general revenue expenditures. After $242 million in tax cuts in recent years and with revenue collections in fiscal year 2017 currently down $8 million and the future of Medicaid expansion in doubt, legislators may begin to eye things like pre-K funding, parks and tourism, natural and cultural heritage programs and rural economic development for cuts, Kopsky said.

The nonpartisan nonprofit he leads, the Arkansas Public Policy Panel (arpanel.org), is focused on health care, civil rights, economic and social justice and the environment. Staffers read every bill, flag those that are problematic and send an email update to members every Monday with action plans for combatting troublesome bills. Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families (aradvocates.org) does similar policy analysis on legislation that impacts Arkansas families.

—Lindsey Millar

Abortion

Legislation sponsored by State Rep. Andy Mayberry (R-Hensley), whose 2013 bill made it illegal for women 20 weeks or more pregnant to have an abortion, would reduce that limit to 13 or 14 weeks with a bill that apparently bans the safest procedure for abortion at that gestational stage.

House Bill 1032, modeled after National Right to Life Committee legislation and the first in the hopper for the General Assembly, would outlaw what it calls "dismemberment abortions." The bill would make it illegal to cause an abortion by the "use of clamps, grasping forceps, tongs, scissors, or similar instruments that, through the convergence of two rigid levers, slice, crush or grasp a portion of the body of the unborn child to cut out or tear off a portion of the body of the unborn child."

"Dismemberment" is not a medical term, and medical professionals say it does not accurately represent the procedure it is apparently targeting, dilation and evacuation, and would be difficult to enforce.

The bill does not make exceptions for pregnancies that are the result of incest or rape.

The legal community says such a law would be unconstitutional in that it would create an intrusion on best medical practices, cause an undue burden on the doctor and patient seeking a legal procedure and ignore the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on viability. Six states have introduced "dismemberment legislation," but it has been enjoined from taking effect by the courts in three of those states — Alabama, Kansas and Oklahoma — and is not being enforced during a legal challenge in Louisiana. There were no challenges to the law in Mississippi and West Virginia; those laws take effect this year.

If the bill passes and survives a court challenge, it could mean women in Arkansas who are past the nine-week medical abortion window and whose doctors believe that the safest way for them to exercise their legal right to abortion would be dilation and evacuation would be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. Giving birth is risker than abortion, so not only would the bill take away a legal right, it would involve health risks for women.

Dilation and evacuation, a procedure used after 14 weeks until viability (after 21 weeks), involves using a seaweed extract to soften the cervix and a cannula to suction the fetal tissue from the womb. To guard against infection, doctors use instruments to make sure there is no fetal tissue remaining in the womb. The World Health Organization and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend the procedure as the safest for women more than 12 or 13 weeks pregnant. (Another procedure, dilation and suction curettage, is commonly used earlier in pregnancy, or to treat the patient after a miscarriage or a uterine disease.)

Mayberry believes abortion is an "immoral" act based on his interpretation of the Bible, he said during hearings in 2013 on his earlier abortion bill. In an email, the Times asked Mayberry, among other questions, if he would personally block the door of an abortion clinic to a woman desiring an abortion by explaining that he, as her legislator, could not permit her to enter. He did not respond, but in a phone interview, co-sponsor Sen. David Sanders (R-Little Rock), said he wouldn't.

However, Sanders said he would tell a woman who was feeling "hopeless or alone" that she did not have to feel that way. He also said he did not believe the bill would be considered unconstitutional, despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that states can't ban abortion until a fetus is viable, somewhere at the beginning of the third trimester, or 12 or 14 weeks later than the period this bill targets, because he believes there are alternatives, including the injection of a substance into the uterus that would terminate the pregnancy.

"On the technical aspects, the bill would not prevent an abortion where there was an injection that terminated the life, the pregnancy," Sanders said. But this reporter's research could find no evidence of such a procedure and a medical professional would only exclaim disbelief at the suggestion.

Sanders also said that rape victims usually seek abortion at an earlier stage, but medical statistics show that nearly a third of pregnancies resulting from rape are not discovered until the second trimester.

In answer to a press conference question about whether anti-abortion bills of questionable constitutionality should go forward given the possibility of a pro-life Supreme Court under President Trump, Governor Hutchinson said last week that pro-life legislation presented an opportunity "to move the court, to move the debate and to move another case to the Supreme Court." The bill was referred to the Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor on Monday. The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas will no doubt lobby against the law.

Opponents of the bill may wish to participate in the seventh Rally for Reproductive Justice at 1 p.m. Jan. 28 on the state Capitol steps. The Women's March for Arkansas, while not specifically a pro-choice rally, was organized in response to the misogyny demonstrated in the 2016 elections; it will start at 11 a.m. Jan. 21 at the corner of Pulaski Street and Capitol Avenue.

—Leslie Newell Peacock

Campus carry

Though Governor Hutchinson has said he does not see a need for it, Rep. Charlie Collins (R-Fayetteville) says he will introduce a bill to require college and university campuses to allow faculty and employees with concealed carry permits to bring their guns to campus. That would amend state law, which now allows campuses to opt out of a provision in a law Collins introduced in 2013 to allow what's called campus carry. All Arkansas colleges and universities have repeatedly voted to opt out. Collins tried in 2015 to amend the law to remove the opt-out provision, but the Senate referred the bill to committee, where it died.

The governor said at a December press conference that the opt-out provision was "very workable" for campuses. Collins said he has a "good working relationship" with Hutchinson and is "obviously open to the governor's opinion."

Collins believes that allowing campus faculty and employees to carry guns would deter what he calls "rampage killers." Should such killers discover that faculty members were armed, they would think twice before attacking, Collins said. "They're going to avoid where they're going to be interdicted."

In 2015, Collins told the Times that "mass murderers in gun-free zones like college campuses are a real problem that's not going away on its own."

There has never been a mass shooting on a college campus in Arkansas. The last shooting with multiple fatalities in the United States was at Umpqua Community College in Oregon in 2015; 10 died, including the shooter. However, under Oregon law, persons with concealed carry permits may carry on campus. The college's rule that no guns were allowed on campus was in conflict with state law.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech University shooting, in which 32 people were killed, legislation has been introduced in several states to allow some form of concealed carry on campus. Eight states now allow or have laws coming into effect that require colleges to allow permit holders to carry concealed weapons on campuses.

Campus carry has been something of a crusade for Collins. He introduced his first campus carry bill in 2011; it was defeated then.

Austin Bailey, of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, said guns on campus are a threat to safety, not a deterrent, and the dollars that will be needed to train personnel in case of a campus shooting should be invested in campus police, not professors.

"If the House has brand-new metal detectors and beefed up security to keep guns out, can they really force guns on to Arkansas campuses?" Bailey asked. 

Arkansans Against Guns on Campus, which is not a formal organization but has a Facebook page, has opposed campus carry since 2013. Steve Boss, a member of the group, called the issue an "obsession" with Collins. "Nobody asked for this bill," he said. "The police don't want it, the campus officials don't want it and have expressed their desire not to have it."

The head of campus police at the University of Arkansas declined to express an opinion on campus carry, referring a reporter to the administration. Calls to the University of Arkansas for comment had not been returned by press time Tuesday.

Boss said guns on campus would be vulnerable to theft. He said the prospect that professors could be carrying guns might discourage applications to the UA and that some students might be wary of talking to a professor about school issues if they thought he or she might have a gun on them.

Boss also noted instances of accidental shootings on campuses, including a professor at Idaho State University who accidentally shot himself in the foot during class.

Nevertheless, Boss said "the odds are stacked" against defeating the bill, given the Republican supermajorities in both houses.

Collins said he may tweak the bill from the version introduced in 2015, HB 1077.

Collins said he does not think students should be allowed to carry weapons on campus. "The idea of drunk 18-year-olds in a dorm room ... ." He did not need to finish the sentence.

Leading the fight against the campus carry bill will be Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, whose members have scheduled a lobby event at the legislature from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Feb. 1. The lobby day is not just for mothers, but all who want to hinder gun violence. The group is also making phone calls, emailing, tweeting and using social media to get the word out about gun legislation. The group's Facebook page, Moms Demand Action - AR, provides ideas on how to let your legislator know your stand on the bill, including a sample letter, and links to news on Collins' bill. The group will also have a table set up at the Women's March on Jan. 21 to provide information on the legislation. Fayetteville-based Arkansans Against Guns on Campus, which describes itself on its Facebook page as a "coalition of students, faculty, alumni, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers," also provides links to articles about the gun lobby and campus safety.

—Leslie Newell Peacock

Voter ID

As of Election Day 2016, 31 states require some form of government-issued identification in order to vote. Ostensibly about preventing the scourge of in-person voter fraud — a crime so rare outside the hellscape of Donald Trump's head that a 2014 study by Loyola (Los Angeles) Law School Professor Justin Levitt found just 241 possible incidents of in-person voter fraud in over 1 billion U.S. votes cast — the real value of voter ID laws to Republicans is that they tend to disenfranchise those groups that often vote Democratic, including the young, the disabled, the poor and minority groups. Voter ID laws surely paid dividends for the GOP in Election 2016. In Wisconsin, for example, where Trump won the presidential election by fewer than 23,000 votes, The Nation reported that with the election looming, an estimated 300,000 registered voters were without a form of ID required by the state's strict 2014 voter ID law.

Understandably, Arkansas Republicans have been bully on the boogeyman of "voter fraud" for years (for example, a 15-page "Arkansas Voter Fraud Prevention Handbook" available from the secretary of state's website features a discussion of what to do if you notice a neighbor's cat is listed on the rolls as a registered voter). The legislature passed a voter ID bill in 2013, then overrode a veto by Gov. Mike Beebe to make it law. The law was subsequently struck down by the Arkansas Supreme Court in October 2014, with an opinion by the late Justice Donald Corbin saying the law would disenfranchise voters and was in violation of the state Constitution because it created new requirements for voting.

Like an undead horror, however, voter ID has shambled back from the grave for the 2017 legislative session, with State Rep. Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle) filing House Bill 1047 in December. The bill, which would amend the state Constitution's Amendment 51, would require voters to present a document that shows the voter's name, or a government issued ID or photo ID when they come to vote. If the voter is unable to show one of those forms of ID at the time of voting, poll workers will be required to list that the person didn't show the ID before allowing the voter to cast a provisional ballot.

Asked about voter ID laws just before the start of the legislative session, Governor Hutchinson said he has historically supported voter ID laws, and doesn't see them as a burden on citizens. "I do believe you have to look at the specific language of any voter ID law to make sure that it doesn't place a burden on the citizens and access to the ballot box," Hutchinson said. "So while I've generally supported a voter ID initiative, I want to look at the specific language of any bill to make sure it doesn't unduly burden our citizens ... because there is a segment of the population that does give up their own driver's license, but they still want to vote. We want to make sure they have that access."

Tom Masseau, executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas, said his group is monitoring Lowery's bill closely, and will be opposing it and other bills this session that might present an impediment to voting. "We feel that IDs are still very hard to come by for people," he said. "Yes, an individual can vote through a provisional ballot, but you and I both know: Will it ever get counted?"

Masseau said voter ID laws disproportionately disenfranchise the disabled because of the physical barriers they face getting to and from a place that issues ID, along with difficulties in obtaining the necessary documents. As an example, Masseau said that a person who may have spent years in a state institution might have a hard time securing their birth certificate and other documents proving citizenship and residency required to receive a state ID.

Asked how Arkansans can help the group push back against HB1047, Masseau invited people with disabilities or other impairments to share their stories of problems while voting in the last election — including polling places that weren't accessible to the handicapped — on the group's Facebook page, facebook.com/DisabilityRightsAR, or by calling its toll free number at 1-800-482-1174.

—David Koon
Undocumented immigrants

Since those on the right are traditionally suspicious of overreach from Washington, it may sound odd that staunchly conservative legislators would seek to punish local governments and institutions for insufficient compliance with federal law enforcement. But that's just what two bills from Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch) and Rep. Brandt Smith (R-Jonesboro) seek to do.

Stubblefield's Senate Bill 14 would strip state funds from Arkansas cities if they enact "sanctuary policies," meaning ordinances or law enforcement policies that demonstrate tolerance toward individuals who immigrated to the country illegally — for example, a policy preventing local police officers from interrogating people about their citizenship/immigration status. Smith's House Bill 1042, which contains substantially the same language as Stubblefield's, would do the same for public colleges or universities. Both define a "sanctuary policy" to include informal practices that (in the words of Smith's bill) "grant to illegal immigrants the right to lawful presence or status on the campus of the state-supported institution of higher education in violation of federal law."

Smith told the Arkansas Times in December that he filed the legislation in response to a group of faculty and students at Arkansas State University that were petitioning ASU to declare itself a "sanctuary campus." He said he'd been later assured by an ASU system representative that "that's not going to happen at ASU" but said his bill was still needed "in the event that these petitions get traction." Similar petition efforts sprang up at colleges across the country in the wake of a presidential election in which the winning candidate campaigned on inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric and promised to establish a "deportation force" and build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Stubblefield said he was unaware of any municipalities in Arkansas that fit his definition of "sanctuary cities," and added "this is more of a preemptive bill, to prevent that from happening." Smith indicated he was mostly concerned about the idea of Arkansas campuses harboring criminals who were in the country illegally. But although both sponsors said their legislation was preemptive, the bills are so broadly worded they could conceivably impact existing policies and resident families. For example, the student bodies of universities in Arkansas include some students who were brought across the border as children, grew up in the state and graduated from Arkansas high schools, yet do not have legal status. Should those young people be turned over to federal authorities for deportation?

Smith said that issue was "really challenging and really difficult ... . We don't want to be heartless about this, but there is a process. Some of these children had no choice. They were brought along with their families. But they need to make a very quick move to get legal before someone or some law forces them out." (However, there is no way for such students to "get legal," since there exists no pathway to legal status for immigrants who are here illegally.)

Neither bill may gain any traction, since immigration sharply divides two key constituencies within the GOP — business interests and nativists — and the governor has expressed skepticism toward the measures. When asked about sanctuary legislation recently, Hutchinson said, "I believe in the fundamental principle of allowing local governments to work, and so I have a resistance to those types of mandates," although he said he had not read the specific bills.

Should the sanctuary bills gain ground, expect loud opposition to come from the Arkansas United Community Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for immigrants. Mireya Reith, the AUCC's executive director, said the organization was "taking nothing for granted" and was watching the bills closely. (She also expressed concern about Smith's House Bill 1041, which could prevent the state from recognizing identification issued by foreign governments, such as the IDs provided by some consulates to their nationals.) "We think one of the strengths of Arkansas has always been for local communities and colleges to come to decisions that make sense for them," Reith said. "This would negate the ability of every community to consider all the options in terms of its relationship with newcomers to our state."

—Benjamin Hardy

Health care

The fight over Medicaid expansion — a.k.a., the private option or Arkansas Works — has dominated the ledge since 2013, when Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe and a group of moderate Republicans created the program. Because the appropriation for the program must be re-authorized every year, the health spending showdown between the GOP's pragmatists (including Governor Hutchinson) and its hardline conservatives has become a perennial feature of every legislative session. This time around, though, the Obamacare appropriation debate may be circumscribed by drama in D.C.

Conventional wisdom says congressional Republicans and President-elect Trump are leaning toward a "repeal and delay" strategy to undo Obamacare: Defund it now and replace it later. This would mean the program as we know it would remain in place for at least another year or two. Meanwhile, Republicans will likely try to shift federal spending on traditional, pre-ACA Medicaid to block grants, meaning states will have greater freedom to spend health care money how they see fit (and will have less of it over time). All of that spells huge changes to health policy in Arkansas — at some point. Right now, all is uncertain, and Congress probably won't deliver clarity in time for the Arkansas legislature to act before the session's end.

House Speaker Jeremy Gillam (R-Judsonia) told reporters recently that it would be "prudent right now to have a little patience to see what's going to come out of Washington." Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren (R-Gravette) predicted that "there will be perhaps some legislation" to make the existing Arkansas Works program more conservative, such as work requirements and an effort to lower the income cap for eligibility. As for long-term, systemic changes, though, "I think it's very likely that will be done at some future point in a special session," Hendren said.

The 300,000-plus Arkansans who now have insurance thanks to the Medicaid expansion — about a tenth of the state's population — probably won't lose their coverage right away. But if Republicans make good on the campaign promises of the past six years, they will in the future.

—Benjamin Hardy

Food stamps and junk food

Conservatives typically oppose the nanny state, but some seem invested in creating additional layers of bureaucracy in the lives of poor people. Take Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville). She's filed a bill to restrict Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to buy candy and soft drinks and other items deemed insufficiently nutritious. The state's Department of Human Services would be charged with determining what products qualify as having sufficient nutritional value based upon the standards for another food aid program, the Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC). SNAP can be currently be used to buy any food item, with exceptions for alcohol and hot food or food that would be eaten in-store.  The state would have to acquire a waiver from the federal government to enact the strict limitations it envisions. Republicans in the West Virginia legislature unsuccessfully tried to pass a similar bill last year. 

Among other problems, strict limitations would be devastating to Arkansans living in so-called "food deserts." The bill would create a massive access problem in rural areas and low-income neighborhoods in Arkansas, where some food stamp beneficiaries might find themselves unable to use food stamps because of a lack of retailers offering eligible items.

—David Ramsey


The incredible adventures of Nate Powell

The Little Rock native is the first cartoonist to win the National Book Award. His graphic novel 'March,' the memoir of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, may well be the mother text for a new era of nonviolent resistance.

If you've followed the quality and depth of graphic novels over the past 20 years, you'll know how odd it is to say that Little Rock native Nate Powell is the first cartoonist ever to win the National Book Award. That's no knock against Powell, by the way. As a longtime fan of the format, Powell admits it's surprising to him, too.

At the National Book Award ceremony in November 2016, Powell shared the prize with writer Andrew Aydin and U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) for the "March" trilogy. Part memoir, part history, part handbook for a new generation of nonviolent social activists to which the books are dedicated, the series employs Powell's black-and-white imagery and a moving script by Aydin and Lewis to powerfully chronicle Lewis' Alabama youth, his awakening to the injustices of Jim Crow, and his trial-by-fire young adulthood, when, as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the future congressman helped spearhead the effort to break the back of institutionalized segregation in the South through nonviolent protest.

The award was a bright way station on a still-winding road for Powell, who has been playing in punk bands and writing and drawing underground comics and graphic novels of his own since he was a teenager growing up in North Little Rock. While the National Book Award is a silver feather in the cap of the 38-year-old artist, Powell sees the bigger accomplishment of the "March" trilogy — with its account of how patriotic Americans once met hate, police batons and fire hoses with love and open hands and somehow won the day — in what it may mean to readers-turned-leaders in the next four years. With President-elect Donald Trump ascendant and progressives warning that nonviolent protests of a size and vigor unseen since the 1960s are necessary if we are to preserve not only the nation's social progress but perhaps the American experiment in representative democracy itself, Powell hopes "March" may someday be seen not just as a piece of history, but as one of the principal texts in the coming fight for the soul of the nation.

Lewis, repeatedly jailed, fined and beaten as a young man in his quest for equality, has called that kind of protest "good trouble." Powell has been getting up to that kind of trouble for years, and shows no signs of stopping any time soon.


Soophie

Born in Little Rock in 1978, Powell grew up all over America. His father was career Air Force, and Powell's boyhood included stints living near bases in Montana and Alabama. When he was 10, his dad retired from the military, and the family returned to Arkansas and settled in North Little Rock.

By then, Powell said, he'd been into comics for years, thanks mostly to 1980s TV shows featuring the Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man. He's been drawing since he was a small child, and began to take seriously the idea of writing and drawing his own comics in the sixth grade.

Very much a part of the 1980s generation obsessed with toy-centric kids' shows like "G.I. Joe" and "Transformers," Powell soon started buying the comics associated with those brands, along with the early "independent, gravelly, black-and-white" incarnation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles before the series hit the big time and became lunchbox worthy. Looking around in the local comic book store for another series in the same vein of "G.I. Joe," Powell came upon "The 'Nam" by writer Doug Murray, a series that ran between 1986 and 1993.

"It was fiction, but it was more or less a realistic, unflinching account of drafted teenagers who were forced to serve in the Vietnam War," Powell said. "Growing up in a military family, being a G.I. Joe kid in the Reagan era, this comic, 'The 'Nam,' really opened a lot of doors to me to begin having real conversations with my dad, to understand stuff like cognitive dissonance, and to understand the moral and ethical quandaries of war and political structure."

Powell said the comic book and the conversations it spawned with his father also opened his eyes to the idea that a lot of what he had read about war in "G.I. Joe" comics had nothing to do with the reality of war. Those realizations were soon buttressed by other, gritty titles in the more realistic comics of the late Reagan era. Soon, Powell was reading edgier underground comics by artists like Chester Brown, Geof Darrow and Frank Miller while expanding his artistic horizons through the well-stocked Japanese anime section of a neighborhood video store.

"That kind of changed my path in life," he said. Powell, along with his friends Mike Lierly and Nate Wilson, would go on to write and self-publish a comic book series called "D.O.A.," with the first issue appearing in September 1992.

The same year, Lierly, Powell and other friends at North Little Rock High founded the pioneering and beloved local punk band Soophie Nun Squad, which didn't formally call it quits until 2006. Part band, part arts collective, part performance art troupe, Soophie's shows were an explosion of expression and creativity, with most songs driven by a chorus of voices. The band recorded almost incessantly, and after Powell graduated from North Little Rock High in 1996 — after which he attended George Washington University in D.C. before transferring to the cartooning program at the School of Visual Arts in New York — Soophie toured annually between 1997 and 2006, including three tours of Europe in 2002, 2003 and 2006. In all, the band played over 400 gigs in the U.S. and 14 countries.

Powell remembers his time with Soophie fondly. During the latter half of the 1990s, he would work six months out of the year in different places throughout the country, then rendezvous with bandmates in Central Arkansas to record and plan the next tour.

Even as he was living the punk band dream with his friends, the urge to be a comic book artist never left him. Powell said that as high school came to a close, he took his cartooning to the next level by dedicating himself to art as a career. Powell remembered that his parents, while always supportive of his art, weren't immediately on board.

"You've got to remember this was 1996," he said. "This is peak Clinton era, middle-of-the-road, middle-class prosperity. There was definitely a comfort zone that I was in danger of violating by saying, 'Well, I'm going to throw it all away and go to art school so I can be a comic book artist.' There were definitely some intergenerational issues and some class issues there between my parents and I. It was a bit of a struggle to actually push my way through and convince them of my argument." Powell said that struggle would continue to some extent until 2003, when his first commercially produced book, "Tiny Giants," a collection of his previously self-produced comics, was published by Soft Skull Press.

"From my parents' perspective, it was the first time they could have a tangible example of something they could be proud of," Powell said. "I think once they got over that hump, by seeing a physical product that someone else had lent some approval by publishing, then they were like, 'OK, this really is something that's serious.' " From then on, Powell said, his parents were "staunch allies" of his cartooning career.

Maralie Armstrong-Rial became a member of Soophie Nun Squad in 1997, soon after starting at North Little Rock High in the ninth grade. Powell, she said, was one of the first people she met after moving to North Little Rock. She remembers Powell and the circle of friends who formed the core of Soophie as friendly and welcoming. "They were hilarious," she said. "I didn't like going to school, but I liked going because it meant I could see them and hang out."

Soophie was like an extended family, Armstrong-Rial said. While every member had his or her own level of influence over what she called "the project" that was Soophie Nun Squad, she said, Powell was the one who pushed for action over talk.

"He helped organize all the energy people had," Armstrong-Rial said. "We'd talk about a tour, about this, about that, and he would say, 'Let's get it done.' He handled some of the nitty-gritty things people didn't jump to so much."

Armstrong-Rial said she was first exposed to Powell's cartoons through his work as an illustrator with the North Little Rock High School newspaper. "I'd keep those," she said. "They were very much in line with what he cared about in the world."

Eli Milholland, an early member of Soophie who has been married to Armstrong-Rial for 15 years, said that Powell became a source of creative inspiration soon after he met the young Nate in elementary school. "He drew every day, every chance he could find, during school and at home," Milholland said. "In the following summers, he and his other comic book friends started to flesh out what would become his first self-published comics. Throughout the next six years, he produced comic books, poetic and emotional zines, social and political cartoons for school newspapers, and self-published cassettes and records of local bands."

Milholland said the bonds of his Soophie family are still as strong as his blood family, even though they're scattered across the country. That includes Powell, who now lives with his wife, Rachel, and two children in Bloomington, Ind. Like Powell, Milholland remembers the Soophie tours as a time of exuberant creativity.

"I recall being on what I imagine was our third European tour with Soophie and I looked over at Nate, gazing out of the window of the van at some mountains as we were driving across whatever country," Milholland said, "and I saw him as the 12-year-old that I had met many years prior. I started to wonder how we got all the way across the globe in a van full of kids, performing music to strangers based on the desire alone. It was because of Nate. He had the drive and courage to contact strangers and set up those tours, the practical and the philosophical abilities to make them all run so smoothly. We all had the desire to see them happen, but it was Nate that made sure that they did."

While Powell wouldn't trade his time in Soophie for a different past, he said he can't help but wonder how his present might have been different had he farmed all his creative energy into cartooning and building his comic book career, as did many of his classmates at the School for Visual Arts. Almost every decision of his early life, he said, was structured around recording or touring with Soophie Nun Squad.

"One reason I think my comic career didn't really take off until about 2008 was this structure built around Soophie Nun Squad," he said. "Once we stopped being an active band in 2006, all of a sudden it became very clear to me that I was now free to structure my time any way I wanted. ... There is a part of me that wonders about that alternative timeline where I would have put everything in the comic basket, but Soophie Nun Squad is a very special entity. It's one that — especially in hindsight — is so centered around this familial bond that we all shared. The level of love and dedication and friendship among band members of Soophie is so strong."

'The Nine Word Problem'

Powell graduated from SVA in New York in 2000 after winning awards and grants for his work as a student cartoonist. Having started work as a caregiver for the developmentally disabled the previous year, Powell would work in the field as his day job for most of the next decade, taking jobs all over the country for several months a year before regrouping with his bandmates for what he called "Soophie time." Meanwhile, Powell continued self-publishing comics through his Food Chain imprint in the early years. While at SVA, Powell had made contacts that would be crucial to his future career in the arts, including befriending Chris Staros and Brett Warnock, who would go on to become the founders of the small graphic novel publisher Top Shelf Productions, based in Marietta, Ga. Top Shelf would eventually publish Powell's award-winning graphic story collections "Swallow Me Whole" in 2008 and "Any Empire" in 2011.

Powell quit his career as a caregiver in early 2009 and started working as a cartoonist full-time. It's a job that requires him to constantly work on at least two projects to stay above water financially. Unbeknownst to Powell, by the time he dived into life as a full-time illustrator, the project that would eventually win him the National Book Award had been in the works for years.

Andrew Aydin is the digital director and policy adviser for Lewis, who represents Georgia's 5th Congressional District. An avid comic book reader and collector since he was a youngster, Aydin was already working for Lewis when he came across a historical oddity that melded his interests in comics and the history of civil rights struggle, a title called "Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story."

Long out of print, the short 1957 comic book played a crucial role in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and '60s by telling the story of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56. Published on pulp paper by the hundreds of thousands, the comic was used as a teaching tool in the early days of the civil rights movement, handed out to young people who wished to join the struggle against segregation. Aydin would go on to write about the importance of the comic book to the movement in his graduate thesis at Georgetown University.

Spurred by the idea of teaching nonviolence through comic books, Aydin spoke to Lewis about doing a similar project: a graphic novel version of his story to help a new generation of activists. With some badgering, Aydin eventually convinced Lewis of the value of the project, and would later conduct over 30 hours of interviews with the congressman. He turned those interviews into the 300-page script for what would become the first book of the "March" trilogy.

With a draft of the script in hand, Lewis and Aydin signed with Top Shelf Comics in late 2010, and the search was on for an illustrator who could strike just the right tone. Presented with the work of several artists who had previously worked with Top Shelf, Aydin and Lewis eventually settled on the art of Powell. Working in Powell's favor was that he was then finishing up work on another graphic novel, "The Silence of Our Friends," a fictional story of the civil rights movement set in Texas.

"We got the final versions back, and we were like, OK, that's it," Aydin said. "Maybe two or three of the pages that Nate did to try out for 'March' actually ended up in the final version of book one." Powell formally signed on with the project in November 2011.

Like a lot of Americans, Powell said he had a bare outline of the history of the civil rights struggle but was light on specifics. It's an issue that is so prevalent, Powell said, that the Southern Poverty Law Center calls it "The Nine Word Problem."

"It's the idea that most kids graduate from high school knowing nine words about the civil rights movement: 'Rosa Parks,' 'Martin Luther King,' 'I have a dream.' That's absolutely true, if your history class even gets to the movement, which mine never did."

Armed with Aydin's script, an original copy of the "Montgomery Story" comic Aydin had bought him on eBay, and a copy of Lewis' best-selling 1998 autobiography, "Walking with the Wind," Powell set about educating himself. Having spent part of his childhood in Montgomery, just 40 miles from the little farm in Troy, Ala., where Lewis grew up, Powell said many of the locations in the script and memoir were immediately familiar.

"The landscapes that he was describing from his childhood were things that I literally knew like the back of my hand," he said. "A lot of the locations in the 'March' trilogy, I'd spent time there. I'd grown up down the street from them. I was able to explore them in my own memory as much as I was able to explore them through the archives."

Focusing mainly on Lewis' Alabama childhood and coming of age in an era of unrest, the first book of "March" helped Aydin and Powell learn the collaborative process. "I was able to learn a lot about how Nate functions," Aydin said. "What his skills are, where he likes to put a splash page or things like that. I tried to write it best I could to fit with Nate's talents."

Aydin and Powell said that from the beginning, one of the main challenges of the trilogy was humanizing figures that have long since been enshrined as legends, including Lewis. "What we were trying very hard to show and to show fairly was, who were the real people in '63, in '64, in '65?" Aydin said. "Not how they're seen today, but who were they then based on their actions and words? Who were they when they were on the front lines? They're different people."

Powell agreed. "We wanted to actively reject this urge to make the civil rights movement a story, in hindsight, of gods and kings," Powell said. "We wanted to try and illuminate the people who had been swept under the rug, like the Bayard Rustins and the entire female makeup of the movement."

"Part of what helps people gravitate toward 'March' and feel a deep connection to it," Aydin said, "was that we showed human beings before they'd been turned into gods. We need that. When we put them on a pedestal, we remove our own responsibility to be able to do something with hard work in the same way."

"March" was initially conceived as a single, massive book, but a decision was made to split the project into a trilogy. Both Aydin and Powell agreed that worked to the benefit of the project as a whole. The first book of "March" was published in August 2013 to almost immediate critical acclaim. While Powell said graphic novels are a "small pond" where it's hard to find either lasting success or failure, something was clearly different about the appeal of "March," especially in the way it quickly made the jump outside normal audiences of the medium.

"Once that book came out," Powell said, "the real game-changer was when we realized what it meant that teachers and librarians were incorporating the book into schools and institutional settings. English teachers were using "March," but it was kind of a shock that history teachers were using "March" as history. It is history, that's true. But it meant we had to give ourselves a crash course in what it meant to follow historical guidelines to make sure it stayed in history classes."

That realization led to what Powell called "a radical shift" in the amount of research they did for books two and three. While book one, which mostly dealt with Lewis' childhood and coming of age, could rely largely on Lewis' accounts, as the focus of the trilogy pivoted toward well-known historical events, including the 1963 March on Washington and the Freedom Rides that challenged segregated interstate public transportation, Powell said he, Aydin and their editor at Top Shelf were forced to take on what he called the "second full-time job" of researching every aspect of the period and the events they were describing.

"It was this increasing shift by which the books were being taken more seriously as history, and as memoir, and as fine art, but then the responsibilities on the creative and editorial end were increasing radically. By the end of 'March: Book Two,' and during all of 'March: Book Three,' we were spending so much time digging into the rabbit hole of history and uncovering things [that it] was kind of like pushing along this giant snowball that was 'March' as an entity."

That quest for historical accuracy included not just reading every published book they could find about the movement, but digging into primary source documents as well. Doing so allowed 'March' to actually move the ball on the documented history of the time. In one case, Powell said, the minutes of a SNCC meeting held just before the first Freedom Ride in 1961 revealed that every other historical text available had erroneously named the wrong person as one of the original 13 participants. In another instance, a deep dive into FBI documents obtained by Top Shelf editors through the Freedom of Information Act revealed that Rosa Parks, whose simple act of defiance had sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, was a keynote speaker during an event on the steps of the Alabama Capitol after the bloody 1965 Selma to Montgomery march that spurred President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act.

"If Rosa Parks decided to bookend the civil rights movement by speaking at this event on the Alabama state Capitol steps," Powell said, "one would think history would have that well-documented. ... That's a perfect example of how history is a living creature. We were actually able to find some photo stills that may have been FBI shots from observers in the crowd that actually showed what Rosa Parks was wearing. So 'March: Book Three' is the first book that actually transcribes and gets into Rosa Parks' speech on the steps. It's transcribed from FBI surveillance documents, but it just got lost in the shuffle."


Time and time again

The second volume of "March" was released in January 2015 to huge critical acclaim, and went on to win the Eisner Award for the year's best reality-based graphic novel. When the third book appeared on Aug. 2 last year, it immediately shot to the top of the New York Times' best sellers list, where it and the other two books in the series stayed for six weeks. Nominated for the National Book Award for Young Peoples' Literature, Book Three — which ends with images of Lewis attending the 2008 inauguration of Barack Obama — won the prize Nov. 16, a week and a day after the surprise election of Donald Trump as president. Aydin sees that as the culmination of a trend that had dogged the publication of the three books, and which reveals their necessity.

"When Book One came out, the Supreme Court had struck down a section of the Voting Rights Act," Aydin said. "When Book Two came out, Ferguson happened. And when book three came out, Donald Trump happened," Aydin said. "I think what's happening in our nation has been this steady progression toward a necessity for 'March' ... . There is immediacy to it that we didn't expect. We always pitched 'March' as being a handbook. That was the idea. But we're lucky we had the idea when we did so it's available and it's out there. If we were just starting it now, it wouldn't be there to help, or at least be a founding document in whatever this new struggle will be."

"I felt increasingly, especially while we were making Book Three, that we felt like we were watching something unavoidable unfold, and we had to get in and push back against it," Powell said. "We had to push with a particular side of history to make a future that wasn't as dark as maybe it appears to be right now. It's been very intense."

Powell, who is working on a new graphic novel of his own called "Come Again," along with a project with writer Van Jensen called "Two Dead," agreed that the "March" trilogy has a new power and relevance since the election. America just made a collective choice to wind back the clock on social reform several decades, he said, but the books can serve as a guide to turn the nation away from the dark future he fears.

"It shows the successes and failures of a massive social movement to make the world more balanced and more just for everyone," he said. "But particularly, it shows a roadmap by which people can learn from those mistakes, can adapt, with a lot of the successes, and push them in new creative ways. ... We're living in such an urgent, grave time. This is not a drill. That's where I kind of return to the recognition that 'March' is a tool. It's personal, it's political, it applies to all of us, but at the same time it's the document of a group of young people and their experiences changing the world, as young people have done time and time again."


‘Do you want a Baphomet statue?’

Members of the public made the case against the proposed Ten Commandments monument on state Capitol Grounds.

A colorful and at times contentious public comment meeting unfolded last week before a subcommittee of the Capitol Arts and Grounds Commission over the proposed Ten Commandments monument, culminating with Tony Leraris, an architect who serves on the three-person subcommittee determining a location for the monument, exasperatedly telling a speaker that the legislation as passed in 2015 makes the monument a done deal. That led some in attendance to ask whether they had wasted their time and effort in coming to speak to the subcommittee.

Those who spoke in opposition to the monument included several longtime figures in the fight to preserve the separation of church and state in Arkansas, including Rita Sklar, the executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, who spoke three times; lawyer Anne Orsi; and lawyer Gerry Schulze, who asked the committee to stop the installation of the monument and thus avoid giving him "lots of money" in fees when the inevitable federal lawsuit is decided and the monument is taken down.

The most colorful comments, however, came from rank-and-file Arkansans, including Robert Walker, who identified himself as a retired state employee who works sometimes as a dog sitter. Walker told the committee that as a member of the Arkansas Army National Guard for 23 years, he was one of those deployed to Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina. Working as a medic, Walker said, he was assigned for weeks to an ambulance driven by young woman, who he called his "battle buddy." In the course of their deployment, Walker said, he learned that not only had she served in Iraq, she was a Wiccan.

"She deployed to Iraq," Walker said. "She took a weapon and operated there. She served you, she served me, she protected us from our enemies. She was a Wiccan. Now the people in the legislature have decided to mark the state Capitol in a way that I find offensive. It is repulsive, it is offensive, it is slapping her in the face. She served you and me as a combat veteran."

Toni Rose, who identified herself as with the group America Speaks, spoke in favor of the monument, saying that America is a nation based on Judeo-Christian values. "You can't deny the fact that Muhammad was not in the room with the Founding Fathers when they were trying to decide how to create the core values that would guide our nation," Rose said. "They did not read the Koran as direction for the Constitution of the United States of America. I believe the Ten Commandments are as much a historical document to the United States of America as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights."

Local musician and Arkansas Times contributor Jeremy Brasher began his statement by asking the subcommittee: "Do you want a Baphomet statue? Because that's how you get a Baphomet statue," referring to a competing proposal by the Satanic Temple to install a huge statue of the goat-headed god if the Ten Commandments monument moves forward.

Brasher said he has lived less than a half-mile from the Capitol for almost 25 years. He said that Little Rock is racially, economically, politically, culturally and religiously mixed, and erecting the monument would show preference for one religion over another. When he talks to friends about the monument, Brasher said, they often ask why legislators who support the statue don't build it in their own districts. "Go build it where your base is!" Brasher said. "Go build it where the people who financed this statue live. Go build it on some private ground in Enola, or Conway, Pickles Gap, or Hindsville or Goshen or wherever. Better yet, build it at your church and keep it there, where religious laws should be — at church."

Brasher went on to say that the part of the law that claims the erection of the monument should not imply that Arkansas prefers one religion over another is "ridiculously disingenuous." "That's like me putting up a sign that says 'I'm the best!' " Brasher said, "and then me saying, 'Look, just because I put up a sign that says "I'm the best" and I won't let you put up a sign saying, "You're the best," doesn't mean you aren't the best, too!' "

The sponsor of the religious display, Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway), also spoke, telling the subcommittee that their decision is not whether or not the monument should be installed. It's about finding an aesthetically pleasing place on the Capitol grounds. Rapert said that much of the opposition he'd heard to the monument was "attempt to inject fear and intimidate the commission." He then quoted from a SCOTUS decision upholding a long-established Ten Commandments monument on the Texas State Capital grounds, in which Chief Justice William Rehnquist pointed out the numerous depictions of Moses, biblical figures and the Ten Commandments in the Supreme Court building and in Washington.

As comments wore on, a speaker who identified himself as Jim Linsley rose to ask the commission what they see as their responsibility, saying: "I hope you'll listen to what is logical, what's reasonable, and what will benefit all of the taxpayers."

As Linsley left the lectern, a clearly exasperated Leraris, called him back, then asked: "Did you not hear what the Senator [Rapert] said about our job? The three of us were appointed to this commission to find a location. We did not vote for this, we did not vote against it. It was done in a prior session, it was signed by the governor. The three of us, plus six others, are on a committee to place this on the Capitol grounds. That is our job. So to sit here and say you need to deny this, you need to deny that, that's not my job."

Asked what the goal of the public comment was if there was no chance of changing the outcome, Leraris answered, "Because it is in the laws to have this public discussion, and we're obligated to show up and listen." When asked, "To what end?" Leraris replied, "I don't know."

"We are one of nine votes [on the full committee]," Leraris said. "We were appointed on this subcommittee for this purpose. This is our fourth trip down there, this is the public hearing. The granite statue has been proposed to us. We know exactly what it's going to look like, we know exactly where it's to be placed on the map, [decided] the last time. So we were asked to come down here for a public hearing. I think we're giving you the time you all are due."

After more back and forth between Leraris and the speaker, subcommittee member Melonaie Gullnick spoke up to say that it's incorrect that the hearing was "celebratory," saying that offering an opportunity for public comment is in Arkansas state law. "Everyone's comments mean something to us, but we can't change the law at this point," Gullnick said.

At that, Schulze came again to the microphone, and reminded the subcommittee that they'd taken an oath to uphold the Constitution.

"That is your obligation," Schultze said. "If you are being asked to perform an act that violates the Constitution of the State of Arkansas or the Constitution of the United States of America, your oath requires you to refuse to take that act."

Best and worst 2016

Honestly, it's hard to imagine a bigger dumpster fire of a year, short of the one in which a giant asteroid careens out of the dark like a drunken prom king in his mom's Hyundai and smashes the Earth to smithereens.

Honestly, it's hard to imagine a bigger dumpster fire of a year, short of the one in which a giant asteroid careens out of the dark like a drunken prom king in his mom's Hyundai and smashes the Earth to smithereens. Prince died, for chrissakes! Bowie, too. Alan Rickman. Muhammad Ali. Merle Haggard. Harper Lee. Leonard Cohen, Gene Wilder and John Glenn. Nancy Reagan died, too, if you see that as a tragedy. Fidel Castro, ditto. Glenn Frey, ditto.

A lot of people died, OK? Just like any other year, only this year was the turd sundae that wound up topped with a poison orange cherry on Nov. 8. Somewhere, years in the future, the time traveler who screwed up our timeline to the point we elected a sociopathic game show host with the temperament of a particularly shitty 3-year-old is getting a royal chewing out by the head honcho of the Chrono Cops. Let's hope his supervisor can go back and unscrew this dim bulb, before the whole planet trips down the stairs.

Anyway, even though 2016 seems to be The Year of the Unexpected, we've been doing Best and Worst for too long to turn it into just The Worst and Worst, so what follows is a nice mix of the two. From plummeting turkeys to Waffle House hairdos to #broadwaybridgestrong, from politicians stumping to lead the wrong Fayetteville to sympathy for the poor devils caught up in Sherwood's version of Dante's "Inferno," this one has a little bit of everything. Hold on to your shorts, though. Something tells us next year's Best and Worst, if we all survive long enough to write or read it, is going to be a doozy.

Best holding on loosely

In the dog days of July, Bobby Capps, keyboardist for the Southern rock band 38 Special, in Hot Springs for a gig at Magic Springs theme park, sprang into action when he looked out the window of his hotel and saw an elderly woman having a seizure near the pool. According to a post on the band's Facebook page, Capps rushed outside and jumped a fence to reach the fallen woman before moving her to a chair and running inside to call 911. The woman was transported to a hospital for treatment, and EMTs who arrived on the scene said Capps probably saved her life.

Worst scattered, smothered, covered, chunked and hairy

In January, a video went viral that featured two employees of the Waffle House in Forrest City washing their hair in the kitchen of the restaurant, in full view of the dining room, with one of the women dunking her dreadlocks in a pot filled with steaming hot water only a few feet from the grill. The two employees were reportedly fired.

Second worst Waffle House-related news

In September, police announced that a Waffle House restaurant near the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport was robbed twice in a single 24-hour period by two different gunmen.

Worst use of accounting unrelated to Wall Street

Animal cruelty charges were filed in February against a Georgia man after a video emerged of him beating a live deer with a large accounting textbook in the backseat of a car. The man told authorities that he and three friends were driving near Stuttgart when they struck the deer. The three put the deer in the backseat, apparently thinking it was dead. Soon after, the animal regained consciousness, at which time the man attempted to beat it to death with the book.

Worst dinner companions

In a trailer released in February for a documentary about him, University of Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema said of the lengths he's gone to recruit players, "I've had to have dinner with a parrot, I've had dinner with a monkey. ... He didn't sit with us at dinner, but he was bouncing around."

Worst "We're gonna party like it's 1899"

The University of Central Arkansas chapter of Sigma Tau Gamma fraternity was suspended by the national organization in October after photos surfaced on social media of a white member of the frat attending a Halloween party in blackface, apparently in an attempt to dress as Bill Cosby. The student was later expelled from the school, with UCA President Tom Courtway calling the photo "highly offensive and repulsive."

Worst trend

Shortly after the photo of the student dressed in blackface at UCA came to light, another Halloween party photo went viral of Blevins (Hempstead County) School Board Member Ted Bonner in blackface, wearing a straw hat and holding a sign that said "Blak Lives Matter." After calls for his resignation by the NAACP and others, Bonner told KATV, Channel 7, "Everybody dresses in a costume. I didn't know there was no such a thing as blackface. If I step down, I'm just getting what these people want. I mean, I'm standing up for my rights as a United States citizen."

Best champion of the First Amendment

The NAACP showed up in force at the December school board meeting in Blevins, with someone eventually calling the local sheriff's office in the hopes of having those there to criticize Bonner removed, but Hempstead County Sheriff James Singleton told those calling for NAACP members to get the bum's rush, "It's their First Amendment rights. They have those rights. There's really nothing we can do unless somebody's causing a disturbance. There's been no disturbance. People have acted responsibly. That's it."

Worst 'looner'

In February, a teacher at Warren High School was fired after parents complained they'd seen him on a cable TV program discussing the fact that he was a "looner," someone who derives sexual pleasure from touching latex balloons.

Best student

An anonymous student in the history class was brave enough to record the Mills coach's rant the day after he was told of the complaints, with the audio — later forwarded to the ACLU of Arkansas — capturing the teacher going off on his class about liberalism, singling out those who complained as having ruined classmates' "right to peacefully assemble," and expressing disbelief that blacks would vote for Democrats, adding, "all they do is convince y'all that whoever the Republican nominee is is going to take away food stamps and all this stuff, put you in chains and send you back to Africa." After the audio recording surfaced, the teacher was recommended for termination by the Pulaski County Special School District and later fired.

Worst grasp of U.S. history since 1890 (and the separation of church and state)

Parents of students at Wilbur Mills University Studies High School in Pulaski County complained to the administration in April after a coach/teacher at the school showed the gory, R-rated film "The Passion of the Christ" during the "U.S. History Since 1890" course, apparently as a teaching unit, complete with handout questions quizzing students on what they thought the film had to say about God's love for them and Christ's sacrifice for their salvation.

Worst tradition

As usual, there was a huge outcry on social media in October in opposition to the annual "turkey drop" at Yellville's Turkey Trot festival, in which terrified turkeys are dropped over the city from a low-flying airplane. The cruel show went defiantly on, however, with at least one of the 10 turkeys dropped this year plummeting to its death in a dry creek bed with nary a wing flap.

Worst travelin' Arkansas

Acting as a surrogate for Donald Trump on a CBS News panel analyzing the September presidential debate, Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge was absolutely wrecked by co-panelist and veteran newsman Bob Schieffer after she asserted that "no one other than those in the media and those on the left" had been asking for candidate Trump to release his tax returns. "Where do you get your evidence?" Schieffer asked. "On what do you base the statement you've made, which is absolutely wrong?" Rutledge replied that she'd been out "traveling Arkansas" and "traveling across the country." "So you're just going around asking people?" Schieffer asked incredulously. "You have no other evidence than that?"

Worst middle finger to democracy

The Arkansas Supreme Court decided to toss Issue 7 — the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act — off the ballot three days after early voting started in October, thus disenfranchising thousands who had already voted for the measure.

Second worst middle finger to democracy

The Arkansas Secretary of State's office in July sent out highly inaccurate lists flagging thousands of eligible voters for removal from the voting rolls because the voters were listed as felons. It's unknown, even now, how many Arkansans were unable to vote because their names had been culled from voting registries based on faulty information. The office said it was a "mistake."

Worst trapped

In August, the ACLU of Arkansas, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the international firm of Morrison and Foerster filed a civil suit over the prosecution of hot checks in Sherwood District Court, which the suit said had put hot check offenders into a debtors' prison. According to the lawsuit and later conversations between hot check defendants and the Arkansas Times, some of the violators had been hounded for a decade or more over bounced checks written for as little as $20, their debt to the court spiraling into the thousands and violators repeatedly jailed when they didn't appear for mandatory court dates or couldn't pay.

Best example

One of those caught on Sherwood's hamster wheel of debt is John Bowman, a blind man who told Arkansas Times for a September cover story that he has fled Pulaski County and gone into hiding at a friend's home because owes the court $4,200 in fines and fees stemming from what he said was a stolen check forged to make a $23 purchase at a liquor store in 2010. Bowman said he decided to go into hiding because his disabilities prevent him from regularly making his court dates, he had no hope of ever paying off his fines, and because he had repeatedly been picked up by Little Rock police and transported to Sherwood on warrants related to his hot check charges, after which he was processed and then released into the unfamiliar city, usually with no way home.

Best retreat

After months of turmoil and division, the Fort Smith School Board voted in June to replace Southside High School's Rebel mascot in the 2016-2017 school year and to ban the playing of "Dixie" at sporting events.

Best indoctrination

After a key pro-Rebel vote on the school board announced he had grown tired of the controversy and would vote for the removal of the mascot, Fort Smith lawyer Joey McCutchen wrote on Facebook that he was suspending his fierce fight in support of the mascot, and then quoted far-right former U.S. Rep. Allen West of Florida: "Our children are not being taught or instructed using critical thinking skills; they are being indoctrinated." If it is indoctrination to teach schoolchildren not to glorify traitors who fought a bloody civil war for the purpose of keeping millions of Americans in cradle-to-grave slavery, then we need more of it.

Worst weasel

In April, State Education Secretary Johnny Key fired Little Rock School District Superintendent Baker Kurrus, who had been brought in to lead the district following a state takeover in May, after Kurrus presented data about the negative effects of charter schools on the Little Rock district. Instead of Key owning up to the widespread belief that Kurrus was being replaced because he committed blasphemy against Republican dogma that charter schools are the way and the light, Key said the LRSD needed "strong, disciplined" leadership, which even some of Kurrus' former critics had said he was providing.

Worst Teflon Don

On Donald Trump's visit to Little Rock in February, his only stop in the state during the campaign, Agent Orange showed up two hours late, blatantly lied about maxing out the capacity of Barton Coliseum even though the fact the coliseum was only partially full was immediately apparent to anyone who wanted to look around during his speech, and apparently forgot what state he was in, given that he told the crowd that Alabama "has a hell of a football team." Nonetheless, Trump won Arkansas in the GOP primary, and carried the state in November by almost 27 percentage points.

Best putting on the dog

In October, a former administrative assistant to the Garland County judge was arrested for allegedly racking up $346,000 in personal expenses on a county credit card over a four-year period, with an affidavit filed in the case saying that her alleged purchases included a tuxedo for her dog.

Worst wasting

In February, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission announced that an elk shot near the Buffalo National River the previous October had tested positive for the state's first confirmed case of chronic wasting disease, a brain disorder that can cause fatal neurological degeneration in deer, elk and moose, and makes their meat potentially unsafe to eat by humans.

Best coming clean

In February, a 20-year-old Little Rock man who had initially told police he was shot in the legs during a drive-by shooting, confessed that, in reality, he was accidentally shot by a friend as the other young man prepared to take his turn in a game of Russian roulette, which the pair was playing with a .357 magnum revolver.

Worst segregation

The ACLU of Arkansas stepped in to object after Maumelle High School in February held a student assembly on gang violence, but only asked black students to attend.

Worst grasp of the word 'desegregation'

According to the Pulaski County Special School District, which oversees Maumelle High School, the gang violence assembly was held as part of "the district's court-ordered desegregation efforts." Credit where credit is due: The district disciplined the administrator responsible for the assembly and quickly apologized.

Best change of heart

In April, an unsigned editorial from the historically right-leaning editorial page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette advocated for the first time for the abolition of the death penalty in Arkansas.

Worst artifact

A man who thought he'd found a Civil War-era cannonball while doing excavation work near Danville in April was shocked to learn from a Hot Springs museum that the item he had in the back of his pickup truck was actually a Civil War-era landmine, potentially primed to explode. A bomb squad later X-rayed the device, learned it still contained explosives and destroyed it safely at a local landfill.

Worst repeat offender

In June, a man arrested after he was found naked on a sidewalk in Jonesboro stripped naked while on a trip to the restroom during his court appearance and then dashed through the courtroom, reportedly while shouting "Court is back in session!"

Best 'safe'

After learning from the museum that the artifact might potentially detonate, the man drove the landmine back to his house before calling the bomb squad. No worries, though. During the drive, he told the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record, "I had a seat belt around it the whole time."

Best argument for not letting teachers take the whole summer off

A Benton elementary school teacher and her husband were arrested in Hot Springs in June after, police said, she told a security guard she would "fuck him up" after being thrown out of a strip club there, with the couple then allegedly getting in their car and doing a tire-smoking "donut" in the parking lot while the husband simultaneously fired a shotgun in the air from the driver's side window before speeding away. The two were apprehended a short time later.

Best filming

In September, Little Rock police officers arrested state Rep. John Walker, a 79-year-old civil rights lawyer, as Walker attempted to video record a traffic stop near downtown with his cell phone. As seen on a video released before the arrest, two officers who approached Walker as he calmly filmed from a nearby corner escalated the situation by arguing with him, with one calling Walker a "race baiter" and saying he was "out here trying to provoke police officers," while the other asked Walker if he would be filming had the driver been "a young white male." After Walker and colleague Omavi Shukur, 29, crossed the street to a sidewalk closer to the traffic stop to continue filming, they were arrested. The charges against Walker and Shukur soon were dropped, with the city issuing a formal apology to Walker, which he promptly rejected.

Best actual event that sounds like the setup for a joke

During a July 14 tornado warning in Pulaski County, former President Bill Clinton, former President George W. Bush, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who were in town for an event at the Clinton Presidential Center, all sought shelter in the basement of Little Rock Central High School.


Best evidence that the author's mother (and likely yours, too, if you grew up in Arkansas) should be in the state pen

In June, a 70-year-old Hot Springs grandmother was arrested for allegedly cutting a switch from a backyard bush and using it to whoop her 12-year-old granddaughter, causing what investigators said were visible whelps on the girl's arm. The grandmother, who reportedly told investigators she used the switch on the girl for "talking back," was charged with one count of second-degree domestic battery. The charges were later dropped.

Best rescinding

In July, the Pine Bluff City Council unanimously voted to rescind the medals of valor awarded to members of the Pine Bluff Police Department SWAT team for a September 2013 incident in which they stormed the bedroom of a 107-year-old man who was holed up inside with a gun and shot him to death.

Best disgraced

In October, former District Judge Joseph Boeckmann, 70, of Wynne, who had stepped down from the bench in May following the announcement of a judicial conduct investigation, was indicted on 21 federal counts, including wire fraud, bribery and witness tampering, in connection with allegations that Boeckmann gave light sentences and cash payments to offenders who came before his bench in exchange for voyeuristic photos and sexual and sadomasochistic favors.

Best hero

Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission Deputy Executive Director Emily White, whose dogged, monthslong investigation into the Boeckmann case put an end to what Boeckmann's alleged victims say was decades of the powerful former judge and prosecutor preying on vulnerable defendants.

Worst poopocalypse

In August, a Facebook post by Little Rock resident Jesse Newton — in which he detailed the horrors wrought to his home after a semi-autonomous Roomba vacuum robot ran over a pile of dog shit in the middle of the night while his family was asleep — went viral, and was shared over 360,000 times.

Best advice

"If the unthinkable does happen, and your Roomba runs over dog poop, stop it immediately and do not let it continue the cleaning cycle. Because if that happens, it will spread the dog poop over every conceivable surface within its reach, resulting in a home that closely resembles a Jackson Pollock poop painting. It will be on your floorboards. It will be on your furniture legs. It will be on your carpets. It will be on your rugs. It will be on your kids' toy boxes. If it's near the floor, it will have poop on it ..."

Best reason to consider bringing back public drawing and quartering

In August, police in Hot Springs arrested a woman and her boyfriend on multiple charges after allegedly finding a 4-year-old girl covered in bruises and tied to a bed with zip strips, with police saying that when officers asked the little girl what her name was, she replied "Idiot."

Worst irony

In August, Central Arkansas champion for the homeless Aaron Reddin said in a Facebook post that the Compassion Center, a shelter in Little Rock, had allegedly evicted a man because he wouldn't stop crying.

Worst bridgepocalypse

On Sept. 28, the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department closed Little Rock's Broadway Bridge, a major artery for traffic across the Arkansas River, for six months so it could be demolished and replaced.

Best 'There She Is'

In September, 21-year-old University of Arkansas student Savvy Shields won the crown of Miss America 2017.

Worst truth is more horrible than fiction

In October, a man who had been an avid fan of AMC's zombie horror show "The Walking Dead" was put on trial in Jonesboro for the July 2015 murder of his 90-year-old neighbor, with the jury hearing a taped confession in which the man allegedly told police he was preparing for the zombie apocalypse and the woman was the "closest thing" he could find to one of the living dead.

Best anticlimax

In October, hundreds of Little Rockians turned out for the scheduled explosive demolition of the Broadway Bridge, only to watch as a series of controlled blasts failed to cut the 93-year-old span, leaving it still standing but too weakened for engineers to safely climb aboard and set new charges for a do-over. Four hours later, workers finally managed, on the seventh try, to coax the old girl into the river using two large towboats and a long length of cable.

Best Twitter

In the short time the bridge stood defiant, someone started a Twitter feed in the voice of the bridge, with tweets including a short clip from "Jaws" containing the famous phrase "You're gonna need a bigger boat."

Best blind justice

In March, U.S. District Judge Brian Miller sentenced former Faulkner County Circuit Judge Mike Maggio, who had earlier pleaded guilty to taking a bribe to reduce the award in a 2013 nursing home negligence case, to the maximum 10-year penalty, with Miller saying: "I put drug dealers in prison for five, 10, 20 years for standing on a corner selling crack cocaine. ... A dirty judge is far more harmful to society than a dope dealer." Maggio has filed an appeal in the case.

Second best blind justice

In November, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that former Stone County Jail Administrator Randel Branscum, 56, had been sentenced to a year in federal prison after arranging the beating of an inmate at the jail by other prisoners.

Worst rootin' tootin'

In March, Pulaski County Sheriff Doc Holladay defended his decision to spend $26,000 in taxpayer funds to outfit deputies with Resistol and Stetson cowboy hats, with Holladay noting that other law enforcement agencies in Central Arkansas have hats and his deputies wanted hats of their own.

Second best Fayetteville

In preparation for a Nov. 29 runoff election for a seat on the Fayetteville City Council, Republican Tracy Hoskins, who described himself as a candidate who hoped to provide "balance" to the council, sent out a campaign flyer that included picturesque views of Fayetteville. The one in North Carolina. He lost.

Worst dope

In December, a girls volleyball coach at Westside High School in Jonesboro resigned after it came to light she had encouraged members of her team to mix a highly caffeinated powder sold under the brand name "C4" into their water bottles before games. The product, which was labeled for use by adults only, reportedly left players feeling shaky, hyper and jittery.



Arkansas Women’s Outreach

Bringing a measure of dignity to the lives of homeless women.

When you think of donating to charities that help the homeless, your first thought of what to give might immediately go to things like socks, gloves, coats, secondhand clothes, canned food or sleeping bags. There are, however, items that are rarely donated, but which can add more than you know to the dignity and health of a woman facing life on the streets: pads, tampons and cleansing cloths to help homeless women deal with their periods.

If you just did anything other than nod after reading that sentence, written by a strapping male who will never have to deal with menstruation, you're on your way to understanding why those crucial items aren't donated nearly as often as they should be.

One Central Arkansas group that's working to help provide ready access to feminine hygiene products is Arkansas Women's Outreach. Along with collecting and distributing those badly needed items, they also accept donations of condoms and new women's underwear, and coordinate with local hospitals and clinics to arrange mammograms, HIV and STD testing, mental health intervention and other health screenings for homeless women. In addition to helping women avoid sometimes life-threatening infections that can be caused by using unsanitary substitutes for tampons and pads, the founders say they're helping women find hope.

Arkansas Women's Outreach was started in 2015 by Little Rock residents Katy Simmons and Rachel Achor. After becoming friends on Facebook and noting how their interest in helping the homeless meshed, Simmons and Achor met up at Vino's Brewpub in March 2015 to talk about how they could do more. That meeting led them to reach out to several local organizations that help the homeless, including Our House and The Van. A pattern soon emerged.

"We started hearing that feminine hygiene products are consistently under-donated," Achor said. "No one ever has enough of them — pads, tampons, baby wipes, bras, underwear. All of this stuff that women desperately need, not only for their physical health, but also to overcome the stigma of homelessness."

"We were surprised to find that nothing like Arkansas Women's Outreach existed," Simmons said. "There are a ton of great homeless support systems in Little Rock, incredible organizations that just go above and beyond to help the homeless community, but nothing that specifically addresses women's health and women's hygiene in the homeless community. That's kind of when we decided, 'Hey, we're going to do this.' "

The pair formed a nonprofit and began accepting donations. Their website, arkansaswomensoutreach.org, includes a page where visitors can order items, including condoms and pads, from their Amazon.com wish list, for direct shipping to the charity's post office box.

Simmons and Achor also attend the Wednesday night "dinner and a movie" event at the homeless-friendly Canvas Community Church on Seventh Street in Little Rock, where they speak to women about what they need, distribute supplies and host educators and health professionals.

"We're able to see all the women who come there, and we're able to talk to them about what they're needing," Achor said. "That's how we not only inform what kind of donations we need, [but] we also tailor our educational and health services to that."

Since founding the organization, Achor and Simmons have partnered with Planned Parenthood, the Little Rock Community Mental Health Center and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences to provide services and education events at Canvas, including an event a few weeks back in which UAMS brought out a portable mammogram unit. Health care provider ARcare has provided free HIV and STD testing, Simmons said. A partnership between Arkansas Women's Outreach and the Little Rock Community Mental Health Center has counselors visiting with homeless people at Canvas one Wednesday night a month.

"They sit down and do one-on-one discussions with the women and men," Simmons said. "They can't actually hold a formal counseling session, but ... Little Rock Community Mental Health Center will help them find access to transportation and schedule much needed mental health appointments."

Simmons said a recently formed partnership with UAMS will soon see student nurses providing guidance to homeless women about their health concerns. In addition to helping women receive donations and services, Simmons and Achor also distribute condoms and information about safer sex. Simmons said that's important, because they often work with women who are involved in prostitution in order to survive. It's all part, Simmons said, of helping homeless women deal with "the layers of demoralizing situations" to which they are particularly vulnerable.

"Women deal directly with periods and the sex trade and a lot of other topics that people aren't comfortable openly discussing," Simmons said. "I think that it kind of falls to the wayside, because it makes people uncomfortable. What we hope to do is create a space for these women where they can talk to us about women's health issues, where there are no judgments. ... By creating a positive space, and kind of reducing the stress of worrying about what they're going to do when they have their next period, they find hope."

For more information or to donate to Arkansas Women's Outreach, visit arkansaswomensoutreach.org and click the "Take Action" tab. Donations of feminine hygiene products, baby wipes, condoms and new bras and women's underwear can also be dropped off every Wednesday night between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. at Canvas Community Church, 1111 W. Seventh St., Little Rock.


Vive la resistance!

House Minority Leader Michael John Gray wants to chair the Democratic Party of Arkansas. His plan to lead the party back to relevance: Start listening to Arkansas again.

It's appropriate that in the corner of state House Minority Leader Michael John Gray's office in Augusta, next to the floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on a picturesque bend in the White River, is a stuffed and mounted loggerhead snapping turtle so big it wouldn't fit in a wash tub. Legend has it that once a snapping turtle gets a bite on you, it will grimly hang on until it hears a clap of thunder. It's a fitting symbol these days for the Democratic Party of Arkansas, which has seen its power dwindle over the past 25 years from unquestioned statewide dominance to bare smatterings of blue; the Delta, Fayetteville, Little Rock and Pine Bluff. Red State Yellow Dog Democrats like Gray know all about grimly hanging on.

Gray, 40, is only the third Democratic minority leader in the Arkansas House since Reconstruction, and he recently announced his candidacy for chair of the Democratic Party in the state. The representative for District 47, which includes parts of Jackson, Woodruff, White and Independence counties, he now rides herd over a whopping 25 Democrats in the House, the caucus thinned by 10 members since the last session alone.

When an Arkansas Times reporter visited his cluttered office in Augusta the day before Thanksgiving, Gray was on the phone talking strategy and shoring up nervous partisans in the wake of another defection: State Rep. David Hillman of Almyra (Arkansas County), who, citing a desire to "better represent the changing views of the people in our district," announced on Nov. 22 he would be flipping to the Republicans. He follows State Rep. Jeff Wardlaw of Hermitage, who announced on Nov. 9 that he would change parties. Hillman had been re-elected after running unopposed this year, but he believed the writing was on the wall in Lonoke, Prairie, Arkansas and White counties, which he represents. Hillman's switch gave the Republicans a 75-member supermajority in the 100-member House, meaning that if Republicans move as a bloc, they can do pretty much whatever the hell they want if a vote makes it to the floor without fear of veto or an end-run around from opponents.

That news might look like rock bottom for a lot of Democrats in the state, but there's still room to fall. Gray's own home county of Woodruff, a reliably Democratic bastion that clings to the western edge of the Blue Belt along the Mississippi River in East Arkansas, voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, but broke for Trump this year by 9 percentage points over Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, the same voters dropped down a few spots on the ballot and gave Conner Eldridge, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, a 24-point edge over Republican incumbent Sen. John Boozman. It was that kind of year.

If Gray is taking up his post-election hair shirt with a lot of other Democrats in the state, however, he must be doing it in private. In public, it looks as if he came to fight. He was, for instance, one of the architects of the Nov. 10 effort by Democrats to stack the crucial House Revenue and Taxation Committee, a surprise maneuver that left the Irrelevant Party in control of 11 of 20 seats and at least slightly dimmed House Republicans' post-election afterglow. It's a move that could potentially allow Democrats to haggle over or block tax cuts in the next session; cuts that Gray and others believe could be disastrous to programs helping children, the poor and the elderly all over the state. With Democrats wandering in the wilderness two days after an election when the worst impulses of far-right conservatism seemed to hold sway from dog catcher to the door of the White House, it was a little sweet to watch Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin go on a huffy Twitter rant in which he called the Revenue and Taxation Committee stack "an affront to voters" before crying that "just because the Dems did it doesn't make it right."

The Arkansas Senate has since passed a rule change that allows the minority party to hold only three seats on any committee. Standing committees in the Senate have eight members. Gray said he expects a rules change to deny Democrats committee majorities in the House in future sessions. That's a fight for tomorrow, though. Gray said he and other Democrats see no upside to obstructing simply for the sake of obstruction on Revenue and Taxation. But for now, for this session, the gang of 25 will still have at least some say in how the ship of state is run.

Though Democratic numbers are down in Arkansas and almost everywhere but the coasts right now, Gray believes the 2016 election is actually something of an opportunity for the party here and nationwide. While having cold water thrown in your face is never pleasant, he notes that it does tend to wake a person up. He's running for party chair, he said, because if Democrats are ever going to rebuild enough to make a comeback in the state, they're going to have to stop seeing everything but the larger cities and the Delta as a lost cause. Most of that shift of perception, he believes, will have to be accomplished with shoe leather out in the little towns of Arkansas, with Democrats talking to poor and working class voters about their hopes and fears. That's not going to be easy, but Gray believes there's a way back for Democrats: offering a message of hope and opportunity, especially in the forgotten corners of the state that look like they have none.

Michael John Gray's family has been farming in Woodruff County since time out of mind. Though he and his wife, Amy, and their young son live in Augusta, in a 100-year-old house with a backyard that slopes down to the White River and includes a tree swing, his family farm is six miles outside of town. A row crop farmer, he grows soybeans and peanuts there, but has made a go of everything from catfish to cotton over the years.

"Farming is a tough life," he said. "It's an interesting lifestyle, but it's a rocky road. ... For every one of those guys that's portrayed as wealthy landed aristocracy, there's the guy who has everything his family has ever worked for mortgaged to the hilt. They're all betting on the come, and there's no summer vacations or spring breaks."

When he was a kid, Gray said, there were 12 family farms in the six miles between downtown Augusta and his family's spread. Today, there are just three. That's the evolution of the industry, he said, but it's also indicative of why little towns are struggling all over the state. That's families gone. That's jobs gone that once paid for refrigerators and rent and new Fords. Standing in Gray's backyard, a visitor can see the looming bulk of two huge tin grain mills that once loaded the harvested bounty of the White River delta onto barges. Both are closed now. Though Gray himself sees promise in Augusta, pointing out the local businesses and waving to folks who leave their cars running on the street while they dash into the post office for some stamps, it looks like a lot of faded towns in the rural corners of the state. To an outsider, it might easily seem that the best thing Augusta has going for it at this point is the fact that the nearest Walmart is more than 20 miles away.

Gray said the tough life is why his father tried to do all he could to steer his kids away from farming. Straight out of high school, Gray left Augusta to attend the University of Arkansas, but eventually dropped out when it became clear he wasn't living up to his own expectations. He worked the night shift at a foundry, and then spent time on the road with a company that moved heavy equipment. Eventually, he came back home and started working alongside his dad on the family farm. At his father's urging, he went to night school and eventually got his degree at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. He went on to get a law degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's William H. Bowen School of Law in 2004. That June, at the height of activity on the farm, his father died in a car accident. It's a moment in his story that Gray glosses over, but that seems to comes back to haunt our conversation later, when he talks about the simple things people in his district need: another ambulance, hospitals and clinics closer than 25 miles away, rumble strips on the edge of the road to warn inattentive or sleepy motorists, highway shoulders that aren't so high they cause drivers to drop off and crash out on the lonesome prairie.

During his stint at the UA in the mid-1990s, Gray was bitten hard by the political bug, citing the era as "the height of Arkansas politics." More interested in other pursuits, however, he said he missed "the Clinton window" that other politically minded friends jumped through. "I still regret, today, that I missed taking advantage of some of the opportunities my friends had to take political jobs or take internships, things like that," he said.

Back home on the farm by 2002, driving back and forth to school at night to pursue his degree, Gray was approached to run for the Augusta City Council. He got beat, but in 2008 he ran again and won. He would go on to serve two terms. While he'd been interested in government, he said actually participating in government was a real wake-up call. "You've got to love where you're from if you're from a small town in Arkansas," he said. "I want to do whatever I can to help the town. But I saw what we could do and what we couldn't do. The limitations. Once you see it from that side of the table, you realize there are things you'd like to do but you can't do."

Though Woodruff County has long been a Democratic stronghold, buttressed by a sizable African-American population and an abundance of what Gray calls Roosevelt Democrats and their descendants, one of the disadvantages of Woodruff County being reliably Democratic is that the Republicans didn't campaign there and the Democrats didn't have to.

"It was easy to overlook us," he said. "In recent years, it felt like we needed to make sure we had a seat at the table. That's why I ran [for House]."

He'd done some soul-searching in the years before with regard to his political ideology, but had eventually come to the conclusion that he was a Democrat, and wanted to stay one, even as the rural parts of the state tracked steadily more Republican.

"I'm a contrarian," he said. "All my friends growing up were [St. Louis] Cardinals fans, but because they were, I was a [Chicago] Cubs fan. There were probably times in my life that my parents were Clinton supporters that I was trying to find a way to support the Republican Party. ... But while I pride myself on wanting to be fiscally responsible, I didn't line up with the Republican Party. It just wasn't a fit for me."

It was a hell of a time to settle on being a Democrat in Arkansas. The 2014 election, when Gray won his first term in the House, was another crushing blow. The Democratic freshman class that year was all of eight people. "A lot of the Northeast Arkansas relationships I'd made — First [Congressional] District relationships I'd made, people I'd looked forward to serving with — got beat that night," he said. "So I'm down here [in Little Rock] to draw for seniority and committees the Friday after that election, and everybody is shell-shocked. Heck, even the majority didn't think they were going to win that many seats. They took Democrats down to 36 members at that point."

The Democrats were a desperate minority, he said, shipwrecked on an island in the red sea, trying to figure out how to be relevant and salvage what they could.

In the face of such hopelessness, his contrarian nature kicked in, and he soon became known among his colleagues as someone constantly throwing ideas against the wall to see what would stick. In September of last year, he was elected as House Minority Leader, taking over from Rep. Eddie Armstrong of North Little Rock.

"My goal, from day one, was to never have that feeling again," he said. "No matter what our numbers were, everybody was going to feel like they were a part of something, part of a team. Wednesday, a couple of weeks ago, when we got just beat down again, I was like, 'You know, there are 25 other people out there that I'm a part of.' In a year, we accomplished that."

One result of playing team ball was the Democratic capture of the majority on the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, which Gray said was about hitting the Republicans where they didn't expect when it came time for committee selections. Though Gray said some of his Republican colleagues are worried Democrats on the committee plan to throw up stumbling blocks for Governor Hutchinson every chance they get, the plan is to work with the governor and allow Hutchinson to take the lead.

"Our goal is to make sure that everything gets a good, responsible look," he said. "Let's take the political ideology out of taxpayer dollars. Let's look at what's responsible with taxpayer money. That's our only goal. I think it would be absolute political malpractice for me to just lay a gauntlet down and say, 'We're not doing this!' Our goal is to look at it and have conversations with the governor. To say, 'We respect that, but what about this? Can this work, too? What about this family where mom and dad are both working two jobs 60 hours a week and making too much money to qualify for pre-K? How can we affect the topside of their check? What about the schoolteacher who has to dig in his or her pocket to buy school supplies? What about that person? Are we giving incentives to out-of-state companies to pay lip service to job creation in Arkansas? What about the opportunity to really bring jobs into some of these communities that are hurting for them?' I'm not saying that's what the governor is doing, but we want to make sure those people are involved in the conversation."

There is, of course, the issue of whether a party with 25 people in the House (and only nine in the Senate) can actually have enough sway to get things done for the people in their districts. It's a question that may plague Democrats in coming years, finding new rocks under rock bottom: Have the fortunes of the party sunk so low in Arkansas that voting Democratic is a lost cause if you want a politician who can get things done? Gray said it's a fair point, but misses how much cooperation still goes on in the House between Democrats and Republicans.

"Are there some votes made here politically? Absolutely," he said. "But I can go talk to someone at the [Highway and Transportation Department] or reach out to [the Department of Human Services] because a constituent asked me to, or reach out to my friends across the aisle and say, 'Here's a problem we're having in my district, I bet you're having it in yours, too.' You just have to go about things a different way. Maybe, because we're in the minority, the Democrats aren't going to get to carry the banner of the big legislation sometimes, but people have reasonable conversations."

The question he gets asked most since the election is, what will the coming of Trump mean to Arkansas and the nation? "I've had a million conversations since [election] night, people from every walk of life, every class, talking about being scared, talking about moving out of state or out of the country. Legitimately, too. Not just saying it," he said. "I'm scared for them. But I'm more saddened. I have friends who voted for Trump. They didn't vote for Trump because they're racists, or because they are condemning everybody to hell who doesn't go to their church. They just wanted a reset. They wanted change." Part of his sadness, he said, is that people were so desperate for a reset that they didn't stop to think if Trump had the temperament or experience to do the job. The other part is what has everybody still reeling from the election: the uncertainty of it all.

"I would have never thought in 1988," Gray said, "when I was reading about internment camps in my social studies class in Augusta, that 40 years later, we would be thinking about modern day internment camps. Who would have thought that?" (A Trump supporter suggested after the election that the Japanese internment camps set a "precedent" for a Muslim immigrant registry.)

Democrats have hit the wall in Arkansas and the country, he said, but the way forward — even in Red or Dead Arkansas 2016 — is for the Democratic Party and Democratic politicians to go out into the state and talk to the people who have consistently been voting against them in recent years.

"Instead of being angry, have that open dialogue," he said. "Will we leave some of those conversations just as mad as when we started? Absolutely. But you don't have any chance of gaining ground if you don't have those conversations."

While Gray said the Democratic Party has done a wonderful job of advocating for working people over the years, the message has been co-opted by those who paint Democrats with the broad brushes of the culture wars. The antidote to that, he believes, is to get back to the basic message: that the Democratic Party is the one that would lift all boats instead of telling people to sink or swim.

"Unfortunately, we've allowed the national brand and the state brand to be defined by that message of 'All they're worried about is forcing change down your throat,' " he said. "I really think Democrats are about, 'Change is happening. Too fast for some, not fast enough for others, but we're all in this together, and we should treat each other decently.' ... You can't compromise that at all. You have to say, 'We have a moral obligation to treat our neighbors with decency and respect. Period.' However, I do think there are ways to have that conversation with people without wagging a finger at them. There needs to be a balance. We need to do more talking to and less talking at."

When people try to write off Arkansas as lost to the Republicans, Gray points out that the state is six years removed from Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe carrying all 75 counties. That victory, Gray believes, wasn't about party or ideology. It was about hope. "Why did Governor Beebe carry 75 counties?" Gray asked. "Because when he talked about his single mother and living in a shack and waiting tables, and he could say, 'By God, I can't make your groceries cheaper, but I can make sure you don't pay taxes on them when you buy them.' People believed that, and they lived that. He felt their pain. He understood their interests. He didn't say, 'You're voting against your interests.' ... That's a mistake we say about people, right? We say, 'Those people are out there voting against their own self-interest!' Well, it's pretty arrogant to say that. Do you know what their interest is? I can say that guy's economic policy doesn't address a certain income level of people or his tax cuts are going to hurt a single mom or working family, I can say that. But to say somebody is voting against their self-interest without being out there listening to what their interests really are?"

While Democrats are understandably despondent over the election of Trump, Gray said, the way to understand the rise of Trumpism is to understand that Trump is only the symptom of the real issue: Struggling people felt their concerns weren't being heard and wanted change so badly that they made a desperation vote.

"Frankly, I don't think either party is really hearing what Arkansans fear, what they need, what they hope," he said. "The Democratic Party is doing a great job of being inclusive. We'll never stop. We've always been a big tent party. But we're going to have to do a better job of listening to the issues that aren't the headlines — that aren't the coffee shop topics. ... You drive down Highway 64 from Bald Knob to Marianna, and there's an empty factory building in every town. People want jobs. They want opportunities so that their kids can not only go to college, but when they graduate from college, they can move back home because there's something there for them. We shouldn't quit fighting for the things we're fighting for, but we should be addressing those issues, too."

If he's elected chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, Gray said, he doesn't want to couch his approach in the same rural vs. urban political warfare that was so crucial in the election of Trump. Instead, he wants to try to get back to the idea of one Arkansas — that Arkansans in both rural and urban areas want the same things in the long run: jobs, good schools, safe roads, clean air and water, and support for the most vulnerable people. While Gray acknowledges he probably can't bring a shirt factory or valve plant back to Arkansas from China, he said Democrats can make sure that communities are ready for investment, while working to help people in need until opportunity comes knocking. That's the oldest of old saws about good politicians: "He fights for the little guy." The fight is the thing, and Gray clearly has some fight in him.

"I can't bring those 12 farmers back and have all those jobs," he said. "But I can dang sure make sure that if you live in Augusta, Ark., or Huntsvile, Ark., or Gurdon, Ark., and you want your 3- or 4-year-old to have a quality pre-K education to get a good start, I can fight every day to make sure they get it. Arkansas is No. 2 in senior hunger. I can fight every day for us to address that."


Cannabis is coming!

With strict deadlines in place, regulators hustle to ready for medical marijuana.

The good news is medical marijuana passed easily in Arkansas on Election Day. Issue 6, the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment, writes into the state Constitution a right to medical cannabis and a basic regulatory structure under which it will be administered to Arkansas patients. The amendment also sets a number of fast-approaching deadlines for implementation, which has regulators scrambling to meet deadlines. Still, the authors of Issue 6 and the director of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which will oversee part of the regulation of dispensaries and grow centers, say they're confident the state will meet deadlines and get marijuana into the hands of patients in need.

Under the amendment, there are over a dozen qualifying conditions that will allow a patient to get a medical marijuana card once the regulations are in place. These conditions include cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Tourette's syndrome, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, post-traumatic stress disorder, severe arthritis, fibromyalgia and Alzheimer's disease. In addition, there are five general categories that the co-author of the act, David Couch, hopes will work as a kind of catchall to help patients with serious conditions that don't fit any of the named conditions. These include any "chronic or debilitating disease or medical condition or its treatment that produces ... cachexia or wasting syndrome; peripheral neuropathy; intractable pain, which is pain that has not responded to ordinary medications, treatment, or surgical measures for more than six months; severe nausea; seizures, including without limitation those characteristic of epilepsy; or severe and persistent muscle spasms, including without limitation those characteristic of multiple sclerosis."

The public can also apply to the Department of Health to have additional conditions added to the list of qualifying conditions. Under the act, if the health department rejects a citizen-offered addition to the list of qualifying conditions, applicants may appeal their case to Pulaski County Circuit Court.

Along with police and courts, schools, landlords, licensing boards and employers are forbidden from penalizing registered medical marijuana users in any way for their use of prescribed medical marijuana, and patients are exempt from laws forbidding marijuana paraphernalia if it is associated with their medical use. The Department of Health is tasked with administering and enforcing the provisions of the amendment, including issuing registry identification cards to patients and designated caregivers.

Under the act, a five-member Medical Marijuana Commission must be established within 30 days of passage, with the commission consisting of two members chosen by the Senate president, two chosen by the speaker of the House of Representatives and one chosen by the governor. The commission must hold its first meeting within 45 days of the approval of the amendment.

Within 120 days after the approval of the amendment — March 9, 2017 — the health department is required to adopt rules governing how it considers applications and renewals of medical marijuana cards, its standards for labeling and testing of marijuana sold in Arkansas, and "any other matters necessary for the department's fair, impartial, stringent, and comprehensive administration of this amendment." Within 180 days of the approval of the amendment — May 8, 2017 — the health department must adopt rules to govern how it will consider petitions from the public to add medical conditions to the list of qualifying conditions.

By July 1, 2017, the General Assembly must create funding for the Medical Marijuana Commission and the Vocational and Technical Training Special Revenue Fund, which will dispense tax dollars raised from medical marijuana to approved vocational and technical training programs in the state.

Couch says he believes the state is on track to meet its deadlines. He said cannabis should be available to qualifying patients by next fall. "I think our state government anticipated that this was going to pass, and I think that they've been preparing for the possibility," Couch said. "I take [Governor] Asa [Hutchinson] at his word that the people of Arkansas have spoken and I have no reason to doubt, as far as the majority of Republicans go, that they will follow the will of the people and try to implement this in a fair, safe and responsible manner."

Couch said that in crafting the amendment, he looked carefully at measures that passed in other states, and the loopholes opponents found to blunt their effectiveness in getting cannabis into the hands of patients. He says now that the measure passed by a clear majority of voters across the state, the General Assembly will move quickly to work toward implementation, in spite of limited opposition from groups like the Family Council.

"I believe there are a lot of people in the General Assembly who are Republicans who get this," Couch said. "Republicans have to be careful because you have that evangelical wing who will primary you, but now that this has passed, I believe they won't muck with it." Couch estimates there are around 40,000 patients in the state who will immediately qualify for a medical marijuana card under the conditions of the amendment.

While getting the ABC involved in regulation of medical marijuana was controversial during the campaign — Issue 7 required the health department to regulate the drug — Couch said having the ABC provide oversight was a countermeasure designed to fend off allegations that passage of the amendment would be too costly for the state.

"In 2012, when we [tried passing medical marijuana the first time], [Gov. Mike] Beebe had that interim study done that said it's going to cost so much money for the Department of Health to do this," Couch said. "It hurt us in the election. The other thing is, the Department of Health, they go out and inspect restaurants. They didn't want to inspect the physical [marijuana] plants at the dispensary. They didn't want to make sure people weren't [illegally] selling stuff. The ABC already does that with liquor stores."

Couch said that since the amendment passed, his office has received so many calls from people looking to learn how to open a dispensary or grow center that he had to tell his assistant to start taking their numbers down in a notebook instead of on individual slips of paper. When the number of calls proved too overwhelming for him to ever return, he said, Couch started giving out his email address.

Under the amendment, 60 percent of those who own dispensaries and cultivation facilities must be Arkansans who have lived in the state for seven consecutive years. The initial dispensary application fee will be $7,500 and the initial cultivation facility application fee will be $15,000.

Though some have expressed concern that the federal government will step in and stop the sale and use of medical marijuana in states where measures have passed, Couch doubts it.

"First of all, Trump supports medical marijuana, [and is] on the record saying that," he said. "Second of all, you take a state like Arkansas and North Dakota, red states, that have passed this? Other than that nut bag Tom Cotton, our senator and representatives are moderates, and this passed in every congressional district."

State Sen. Jon Woods (R-Springdale) worked with Couch for over two and a half years to craft Issue 6, having previously worked with him on a measure that attempted to regulate lobbyist activity in the state legislature. Woods said that while he doesn't drink or smoke and has never used marijuana, medical cannabis is a topic he's been watching in other states for years. Woods' father has multiple sclerosis, and he said several families in his district include children with serious seizure disorders.

"I believe in helping people who are hurting. I don't like watching people in pain or suffering. That bothers me," he said. "When you look at the THC and some of the edibles, the little kids that have seizures can take THC and put it in peanut butter, and the child takes it and the seizures just drop dramatically. That, to me, is powerful."

Woods said he and Couch studied the failure to pass medical marijuana in 2012, and recognized several key issues that, if dropped, would help another effort succeed.

"We came up with a list of things we thought would make people feel better about it," Woods said. "A lot of it had to do with grow-your-own. We took that out, and the polling showed a 10-point favor. It just went right up. I think people looked at it like, OK, here's something that's responsible. Here's something that somebody actually put some thought into."

Bud Roberts, the state director of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division, said his office has been preparing for implementation and fielding calls from those looking into how to become licensed to operate a dispensary or grow center.

"The big question I'm getting a lot of from the taxpayers is the how," Roberts said. "How do I get in on the ground floor? How do I apply for a cultivation facility — something you and I would have probably called a farm — and how do I apply for a dispensary? Those are the big questions I'm getting. But right now, it's virgin territory. We are in the drafting phase of regulations right now." Roberts said he and his staff are "taking notes" from the regulations of Alaska, Oregon and Washington, all of which have their alcoholic beverage control apparatus involved in the regulation of marijuana. The state ABC Board was to meet for its first post-election meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 16, and Roberts said he was sure the topic of medical marijuana would come up.

"The board has been made aware, in previous months, by myself, of the amendment and what its terms are," Roberts said. "They are aware of the role the ABC will play, and they are also aware that my staff here has the duty, under the amendment, to provide any needed staff that the Medical Marijuana Commission might need to borrow from ABC."

Though Roberts said he hasn't been in touch with Couch to discuss the amendment, he believes the ABC will be able to meet its obligations under the law. "They put a pretty challenging deadline on ABC to come up with these regulations," Roberts said. "But I'm confident in my staff and I'm confident in myself. I think we're going to be able to do it just fine."