Hail to the chief
Little Rock has a new police chief. Keith Humphrey, formerly chief of the Norman, Okla., police department, replaced Kenton Buckner, who left the department after four years in November to become chief of police in Syracuse, N.Y. Mayor Frank Scott said he hired Humphrey because of his “focus on crime reduction through community policing” and his “understanding of cultural competency.” At his swearing-in ceremony April 15, Humphrey said, “I truly believe that Little Rock will be the safest city in the state, and not only the state, we will be one of the safest cities in America.”
No, not that Hutchinson, but close: On April 11, former state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock), the governor’s nephew, was charged with 12 counts of conspiracy, fraud, bribery and other alleged crimes related to payments he accepted from a Missouri-based nonprofit mental health provider while serving in the state legislature.
Federal prosecutors say Hutchinson used his position to perform favors for the provider, Preferred Family Healthcare, which retained his services as a lawyer. Hutchinson’s own attorneys insist he did nothing wrong. The indictment also included charges against Tom and Bontiea Goss, the executives who ran the nonprofit. It’s only the latest chapter in a sprawling, yearslong federal investigation into public corruption in the Arkansas legislature. Four other former state lawmakers have been charged with wrongdoing related to Preferred Family Healthcare.
A deadly blast in South Arkansas
On March 27, a tanker truck transporting ammonium nitrate — the same chemical compound used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing — blew up on U.S. Highway 278 west of Camden, leaving a crater in the road 15 feet deep. The State Police said the explosion was triggered after the truck’s brakes caught fire. The driver, Randall McDougal, 63, was killed while trying to extinguish the flames; several firefighters were also injured.
Legislature wraps up
On April 10, astrophysicists released the first-ever photo of a black hole, and the Arkansas legislature adjourned.
Much of the 2019 session was all too predictable: Republicans passed a variety of tax breaks benefiting corporations and the rich while rallying around anti-abortion measures. Along with a road-funding proposal, legislators sent two constitutional amendments to the 2020 ballot, both of which are insulting. The first is billed as a “term limits” proposal but would actually allow most lawmakers to serve more time in office. The second would make it harder for citizen-initiated ballot measures to gain traction.
Perhaps the best moment of the session was the passage of a bill by Rep. Dan Douglas (R-Bentonville) to let certain immigrant students — including DACA recipients — access in-state tuition rates, just like other kids graduating from Arkansas high schools. Lawmakers also showed compassion for DACA nursing students: A new law will allow them to become licensed in Arkansas. Unfortunately, these bright spots were dimmed somewhat by the last-minute passage of a bill by Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch) banning “sanctuary” policies in Arkansas cities, a needless piece of legislation that targets unauthorized immigrants.
Anderson out, Musselman in
The University of Arkansas hired Eric Musselman as its new basketball coach, several weeks after firing Mike Anderson from the same position. Musselman, 54, had been the head coach at the University of Nevada for four years, leading the team to three NCAA Tournament appearances, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 2018. The UA signed him to a five-year deal worth $2.5 million per year, plus various bonuses (including $500,000 for winning a national title). Musselman brings with him NBA head coaching experience; a wife, Danyelle Sargent, who is a former “SportsCenter” anchor; and a penchant for taking his shirt off during celebrations.
Medicaid work requirement struck down
Last year, Arkansas became the first state in the country to require certain Medicaid beneficiaries to report job hours as a condition of keeping their health insurance. On March 27, a federal judge threw out the rule, saying the Trump administration hadn’t properly considered the coverage losses likely to result from the policy. In 2018, the state threw 18,000 people off Medicaid as a result of not reporting their hours. It would have terminated thousands more on April 1 had U.S. District Judge James Boasberg not issued his order.
The Trump administration is appealing the decision, egged on by Governor Hutchinson. With a number of other red states eager to implement their own Medicaid work requirements, the case is likely to make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, at least, it’s now a little bit easier for poor people in Arkansas to keep their health coverage.