- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Arkansas newspapers:

Pine Bluff Commercial. Jan. 28, 2017.

It’s a dreaded word for many - one that creates as much ire in the gut as a pile of snakes and spiders.

Taxes.

There are only two certainties in life: death and taxes, as the old saying goes. Taxes are necessary to help make our cities beautiful and to provide vital services such as police and fire protection.

I’m sure you all know by now about the new Go Forward Pine Bluff plan, which aims to guide our city back on a successful economic track. The plan proposes a five-eighths cent city sales tax increase, which they say will generate $32.5 million over seven years. That money will go along with another $20 million in grants and donations. The tax will sunset in seven years unless it is renewed, and it will be collected only in Pine Bluff, because all the money will be spent in the city.

Many people run from the thought of new taxes, saying, “What have taxes done for me lately?” For one, we are about to build a beautiful new library with a tax increase. And if voters approve the Go Forward tax plan, just think of all the things our community can accomplish.

Here’s an example. In El Dorado, a similar tax increase, dubbed El Dorado Forward, was passed several years ago. It sparked an economic boon, and now the city is getting an entirely new arts and entertainment district as a result. The tax didn’t generate all of the funding for these grand new enterprises, but it did provide the spark, which allowed investors to see that the city was serious about revitalization.

Now, millions are being funneled into that community for improvements.

You see, a new tax is only partially about raising money. It’s also about showing support for your community so that others know you are serious about making changes. If we all don’t put in a few of our own dollars to help out, why would someone want to pour millions of their own funds into our area?

That’s our thinking anyway.

We dream of a day when Pine Bluff will one day again be the jewel of the Arkansas Delta - a shopping and entertainment hub for visitors and locals to mingle and enjoy life in a thriving city. We already have the base for what it takes to accomplish all this: good people.

We’ve never met finer people in all of our travels than those who live right here in Pine Bluff. That’s why we feel that folks will step up and support the tax initiative that’s set up to help our city succeed. As Tommy May, chairman of the Simmons Foundation, said during the big Go Forward Pine Bluff rollout: This is the last chance to do something for Pine Bluff before it’s too late.

We agree with our good friend Tommy. Look around and it’s obvious. Our city’s downtown is a rusting car up on blocks. The time is now for revitalization. And to make that happen, we are all going to have to give a little.

___

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Jan. 31, 2017.

It’s the political version of one of Newton’s Laws of physics by now: Every action to let the people in on what their public servants are doing sets off an equal but opposite reaction. So just when more police departments all across Arkansas are using body cameras to let the public see what its servants are doing, the state’s legislators are busy proposing ways to keep the We the People in the dark.

Citizens from all walks of life have a duty to step forward and tell what they’ve seen to the cops, so why shouldn’t the cops be at least as candid with those they’re supposed to serve and protect? When that simple question is put to some of the state’s many different police forces, the response can be as blunt as it is wrong. To paraphrase Ring Lardner in a different era: “Shut up, they explain.”

In the past couple of weeks, legislators have filed at least three bills that would limit the release of dashboard and/or body-cam footage to the public, so even more holes may be drilled in the state’s already tattered Freedom of Information Act as this legislative session proceeds post haste toward still more secrecy. After years of Faugress, the late great Winthrop Rockefeller and his brave band of reformers unveiled the first model of what was in their time a model reform. But by now the FOIA is as scraped, dented, scratched and generally torn up as any other banged-up, much-used car hidden away in the back row of your nearest used car lot.

To quote Tom Larimer, who directs the state’s Press Association: “Normally this happens much later in the session. That doesn’t bode well for us during the rest of the session.” Call it the Secrecy Act of 2017, and while its contents are already being negotiated to make it “more palatable,” to quote one sponsor in the Legislature, there’s only so much one can do to make a mess of foul-smelling ingredients into a tasty dish. The bill is unnecessary, unoriginal and generally undesirable.

They say sausage making and lawmaking can be messy processes and, in this case, it is. Mr. Larimer notes that this ill-conceived bill could keep evidence hidden on the grounds that an investigation (is said to be) pending and “could be interpreted to close (public records) in perpetuity.” Nothing may last forever, but bad laws like this one could hang on for a long time. Maybe until they’re superseded by even worse ones. At last report, all is in flux where these proposals are concerned.

A state representative from Paragould who used to be a deputy prosecutor, Jimmy Gazaway, says he remembers the anguish when footage of a murdered police officer in Trumann was released several years back. As awful as such a crime was and is, that’s no reason to pull down the shades and tell the public to go away. Indeed, opening the blinds and letting the sunshine in may be the best way to help find ways to prevent such crimes. “It was really just a murder on video,” Rep. Gazaway recalls, and recall it the whole state should. Instead of just letting that crime fade away.

But Mr. Gazaway goes on to assure all of us that all is well, or will be: “This is not an assault on the Freedom of Information Act, in my opinion.” Some of us are partial to good opinion, and are happy that this state representative knows the difference between opinion and fact. (More politicians should.) But his opinion doesn’t stand up, in our opinion. Shutting off access to information to the public … shuts off access to information to the public. Plain and simple. And that, folks, is an assault on the FOIA.

Let’s hear the opinion of Adam Marshall, an attorney with the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press that fights secrecy laws wherever they are sown like dragon’s teeth, just waiting to multiply. “The body cameras are being put in place to ensure the public has access to see what transpired when there are competing narratives or only one narrative,” he says. Pictures can lie, but isn’t that a reason to release more information rather than less?

There have been enough cases over the past few years - from around the nation - that prove that withholding information from the public when it comes to law enforcement just begs for controversy, misunderstanding, distrust, and, in the end, riots.

Let’s not bring that to Arkansas. Let’s not damage the FOIA any further.

___

The Jonesboro Sun. Jan. 31, 2017.

On its surface, a bill that would outlaw the purchase of “unhealthy” foods with food stamps seems reasonable.

After all, we don’t want taxpayers footing the bill to provide junk food to poor people who may end up suffering from health problems due to obesity, now do we?

Of course not.

But what exactly are “unhealthy” foods? Potato chips, cookies, candy bars, ice cream, doughnuts, pizza?

The bill calls for funds from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to only be used for food with “sufficient nutritional value.” It also calls for the U.S. Department of Health to “identify specific foods, food products and beverages or general categories of foods, food products and beverages that have sufficient nutritional value” and to “use the federal guidelines for the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children as a basis for identifying foods, food products and beverages with sufficient nutrition value.”

Wow, that’s a mouthful.

Because SNAP is a federal program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture would have to give the Arkansas Department of Human Services a waiver allowing for the bill’s implementation.

While all that may sound reasonable, it really isn’t. And there are several reasons why.

First of all, the measure would put a huge burden on grocery stores, convenience stores and other food retailers that take SNAP benefits.

Both Bill Orr, owner of Bill’s Fresh Markets, and Jon King, owner of Hays grocery stores, agreed that the bill would be a nightmare to implement.

Employees would have to tag each item in the store as eligible or non-eligible for food stamps. The products would have to be specially entered into the stores’ computer systems.

The costs of the bill’s implementation could be enormous for food retailers.

“… It might cause retailers to purchase new systems; that may cost me $100,000 a store,” King told Sun reporter Neal Embry.

And who’s going to come up with the list of items?

“How are they going to keep up with the 15,000 (new) items that come in every year?” King asked.

It’s mind-boggling.

While both grocery store owners said the premise of lowering the obesity rate and making Arkansans healthier is a good idea, this bill will not help, and focusing on SNAP recipients is wrong.

“Why they’re singling out SNAP recipients, saying they’re more overweight, that’s an unfair opinion,” King said.

Agreed.

Orr also had a good point: “… If they’d work as hard on getting fraud out of the program as they do on keeping low-income kids form getting a candy bar, they’d save a ton of money.”

Precisely.

There may be more at play with this bill than meets the eye. Once a list of foods is determined to be of insufficient nutritional value, wouldn’t those foods no longer be considered “groceries,” which are taxed at 1.5 percent by the state? Wouldn’t those food items now be eligible for the full 6 percent state sales tax? Wouldn’t cities and counties with sales taxes also want to take advantage of this new revenue stream?

Of course, they would.

Maybe this bill is actually a tax increase disguised as a slap to poor folks.

Regardless, it doesn’t meet muster (pun intended), and our lawmakers in the Legislature need to rethink the merits of this bill.

We’d like our lawmakers to focus more on the fraud aspect of the state’s SNAP program instead of taking candy bars away from poor kids and making retailers do an bunch of unnecessary and expensive work.

It leaves a bad taste in our mouths.

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