Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Arkansas newspapers:
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Dec. 3, 2013
Here's the latest reason/ excuse for keeping public information private at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville:
It seems the prosecutor's office in Washington County is examining a copy of whatever records UA-F kept as multi-million-dollar deficits were being uncovered in its fund-raising division. Which is just what those prosecutors should be doing after all the troubles that division has bred for Arkansas taxpayers, not to mention loyal supporters and once proud alumni of the university. By now the very name of that division is enough to raise eyebrows across the state, certainly among those who have to keep up with the tangled web it's woven over the years. This outfit is formally and ironically known as the university's Advancement Division. (If the way these public funds were handled was advancement, what do you suppose regression would be?)
Innocent Reader might think that, if any bureaucracy in the state would want to be up-front about its finances by now, it would be this "advancement" division of a university that bills itself as the state's "flagship" campus. But that's an irony to explore some other day. Today, the university is still balking at releasing the records of its most troublesome division and long-running sore.
So long as the prosecutors' investigation into this thoroughly botched affair continues, says the university's administration, it can't legally release these records to Arkansas' Newspaper. It claims that wouldn't be in accordance with the state's Freedom of Information Act.
But at least one scholar who's studied the law extensively over the years asserts that such secrecy is not in accord with the state's Freedom of Information Act at all.
Robert Steinbuch, who professes at the law school that's part of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, has a different-and more open-point of view. The professor argues that an "an independent record created and maintained by the university for non-law enforcement purposes" does not "magically become secret" when it's turned over to a law-enforcement agency later.
The professor's would not seem an unreasonable view. A university is not an arm of law enforcement. It's an independent agency, or at least should be. And it should be making its own judgment about what it owes the public that supports it-and its own reputation. UA-F shouldn't be acting as if it has something to hide. Certainly not after all this time and all these scandals.
The university's general counsel, Fred Harrison, did allow that the records the Democrat-Gazette is asking for would be made public once the prosecutor's office concludes its investigation. But, like justice itself, public information delayed can be public information denied if it's not released in timely fashion. Unfortunately, the university's hesitation to release these records will only stir more suspicion.
If the question of whether to release these records isn't already sufficiently complicated, the state's Legislative Audit Division is still conducting its own investigation of the university's financial records. Its sage attorney, Frank Arey, says it would decline to release its copy of the records, too-but in accordance with a narrowly drawn provision of the state's Freedom of Information Act that would seem to apply only to it. Meanwhile, at the behest of an ever-vigilant legislative committee, its investigation of UA-F's fiscal affairs continues, and the whole state awaits the results.
Washington County's deputy prosecutor, David Bercaw, has been handed this whole hornet's nest-another demonstration that a prosecutor's lot is not an easy one. He says he did object to the records' being made public, but he also said he would leave it to the university's administration to make its own decision about releasing the records.
At this point the administration at UA-F has had about as great a season as its football team-not that the team isn't trying to do its best to level with the public. If only one could say as much about the university's top brass with any confidence.
Why not just release these records and let the chips fall where they may? Tell the truth and shame the devil and all that. Or would that be too simple, too direct and straightforward a course? Maybe if the university had taken that path from the first, it wouldn't be in this mess now. It's still not too late for UA-F to come clean and put all this behind it.
As this multi-million-dollar scandal continues to reverberate throughout the state, let's keep one thing in mind: This is still America, and the university's administration should not be presumed guilty — even if it acts like it.
Southwest Times Record, Nov. 30, 2013
On Cyber Monday, don't forget sales tax
The National Retail Federation is predicting an uptick in holiday spending this year of 3.9 percent to $602.1 billion. That's slightly above last year's 3.5 percent increase and above the 3.3 percent annual average increase over the last 10 years.
In your own spending, even after you've shopped local and shopped small, there's a chance there are some things left on the list Santa needs you to order online.
NRF's Shop.org division tracks online shopping trends. It predicts online holiday sales will increase this year between 13 percent and 15 percent to as much as $82 billion during November and December.
Research by the NRF Foundation shows nearly 130 million people shopped online on Cyber Monday in 2012, primarily from their home computers — not their work computers, as was the case in earlier years. In fact, purchases from mobile devices outpaced work computers last year; it seems almost inevitable that their share of the online purchases will jump ahead significantly this year.
All of this is by way of saying people are going to spend more money than ever shopping online, where they will demand from online retailers perks like free shipping, discounted prices and easy returns.
What those online retailers cannot give consumers — no matter how much it looks like they can — is a free pass on sales tax.
The Arkansas state sales and use tax is 6.5 percent. That is the existing tax rate, and online purchases are not exempt from it, even though online retailers are not required to collect it or to report sales on which it should be levied.
When purchases are made in a brick and mortar store, the store collects the sales tax and sends it to the state. When a purchase is made online, the seller usually does not collect the tax. Instead it is the obligation of the consumer to report the purchase and pay the tax. That is required by Arkansas law.
The Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration has a one-page form that can be downloaded to submit with your sales tax payment. Go to http://www.dfa.arkansas.gov, select sales and use tax from the "find a form" list, then select Consumer Use Tax Form/CU-1.
While the Marketplace Fairness Act languishes in Congress, despite the leadership of Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, and Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., our state is languishing with lost revenue from existing taxes that go uncollected.
Go ahead and file the form. You'll feel better if only because when you are Christmas shopping, chances are excellent that Santa is watching.
Log Cabin Democrat, Nov. 30, 2013
The tree story that won't go away
Let's recap what's happened so far this year: We had two officers die in the line of duty, and that's a much bigger deal in our book than just about any city politics story; we've heard announcements that a hospital and a massive commercial development are coming to town; we've had an arrest and conviction to cap off coverage of that bizarre and pathetic "babygate" hoax against the sheriff that we exposed and we've tried mightily in the last few weeks to wrap our heads around a poorly drafted and possibly disingenuous backdoor amendment leaving the state of Arkansas' gun laws nearly as confusing as the 2nd Amendment itself. Oh yeah. There was that thing down in Mayflower with the oil and the duck and whatnot. That one turned out to be a kinda big deal.
But when we all scattered for our Thanksgiving reunions with relatives from the far corners, what were the most FAQs? To our surprise, they were, "What about that million-dollar tree in Conway?" and "I saw on (wherever) where that tree's a big conspiracy," and "with all the problems in Conway, that's a waste of taxpayers' money to buy a tree."
And then there were claims that the tree was not only wrong or bad or foolish, but full-on illegal. There was an online story by the Arkansas Project that, at a glance, has the look of a properly researched investigative journalism piece.
We know a little bit — enough to know that you can't cherry-pick a few pieces of law and call it investigative research. Nope, the applicable Christmas tree law is more complicated than the Arkansas Project reported, and as usual, explaining it correctly — like we hope we've done in today's edition — takes at least twice as many words as getting it wrong.
Also, we really don't have a "slant" on the tree. We've looked into it, and we're satisfied that it was a legally permissible use of A&P money and that the council's decision to spend it was lawful, including the waiver of competitive bidding and the emergency clause. Was it a wise way to go about spending the money? Opinions differ like we suppose they do in the break rooms and loading docks of every business in town. We agree that it is a lot of money for a fake tree, and an out-of-state fake tree vendor who'd only agree to talk on condition of anonymity said it seemed too expensive to him too.
Granted, that's a little like asking a Camry salesperson if somebody spent too much money on an Accord (or vice-versa), but it is an educated opinion.
Is the great and storied tree working as promised to advertise and promote the city and bring more shoppers to town? We'll have to wait for the numbers to come in before trying to weigh in on that one. What we are seeing is a lot of happy people posing for happy pictures in front of the thing — sometimes a whole lot of people.
One thing we do know for a fact: Conway definitely got everybody's attention with the tree, and when our yearly list of top ten stories is compiled, it'll be on there.