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Sarah Whites-Koditschek/ Arkansas Public Media

Sarah Whites-Koditschek is a reporter and anchor for KUAR 89.1.

She was a production assistant and reporter for WHYY in Philadelphia. She also interned at NPR’s Morning Edition in Los Angeles.

Sarah is a graduate of Smith College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in American Studies. She was a student at the Stabile Center For Investigative Journalism at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Contact Sarah at sarah@arkansaspublicmedia.org or 501-683-8655.

Arkansas is one of just two states in the country that has criminalized drowsy driving, but it’s almost never enforced.

Just three convictions have occurred under the state’s 2013 law, according to the most recent data from 2016.

To convict someone under the law, a death must occur, and there must be proof a driver had not slept for 24 hours before the accident. New Jersey, the other state that criminalized drowsy driving, requires proof that a driver missed 16 hours of sleep in order to convict them.

Air quality changes made in 2010 raised the threshold for how much air pollution a company can emit without a permit. On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency approved those lower air quality standards. 

 

Chuck Buttry, a board member for the Arkansas Environmental Federation, an industry lobbying group, says the higher threshold allows companies with low pollution levels to make changes, like upgrade equipment, without a long permit process.

Shennel Douglas is a nursing student at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. She says she hesitated when deciding to study in the U.S. after watching U.S. police shootings of unarmed civilians on television at home in the Caribbean.

 

“Coming to UCA, my main concern was being, what should I say, marginalized? Because not only am I an international student, but also I’m a black international student.”

 

There are now less international students on American college campuses than any time in the last decade.

Arkansas is at the forefront of a national experiment to see whether requiring work for health care coverage helps lift people out of poverty.

 

Starting next month, many who are on the state’s low-income health care program, Arkansas Works, must show they are working, volunteering, in school, or getting job training for at least 80 hours each month. The Arkansas Department of Human Services estimates 42,000 Arkansans will be impacted.

Arkansas has seen a record number of flu deaths this year, 215, and the severity of the virus has taken Arkansans by surprise.

State chief epidemiologist Dr. Dirk Haselow says the health department doesn’t really know why there were more deaths this year, but one reason could be that Influenza B dominated this year, and it is more deadly that Influenza A.

State and local leaders are considering how best to treat Arkansas’s opioid crisis if their coalition lawsuit succeeds against opioid drug makers and distributors.

A group of Arkansas cities and counties made national headlines when it came together last week to launch a lawsuit against 65 opioid drug makers, distributors, and others.

Colin Jorgensen is an attorney for the Arkansas Association of Counties who worked on the lawsuit. He says the case seeks a payout large enough to fix the state’s growing opioid epidemic.

A bill is up for vote by the general assembly  that would protect hog farmers from lawsuits for certain environmental issues once their waste permits are approved.

The legislation was approved by the Arkansas General Assembly today, and it's meant to reassure hog farmers as well as the banks who lend them money.

In 2005, Jaime Mann was cited for several traffic violations in Craighead County — not having insurance, not wearing a seatbelt, and hazardous driving. She was charged about $500. She paid some of it, but then she started racking up fees and fines for the money and community service hours she owed.  

 

"And then it started spiraling out of control, and I was so mad, I remember, because I thought, ‘I paid this ticket,'" she said.

Arkansas lawmakers have a couple more weeks in this year’s budgeting session to re-approve funding for Arkansas Works, the state’s healthcare program for low-income people. Yet, a handful of state senators and their votes to continue the program remain on the fence.

Arkansas Works  covers about 285,564 low-income people. It also brings in federal dollars that are important to the state budget. The Arkansas Department of Human Services says it would cost the state $148.9 million extra in fiscal year 2019 to continue serving the program’s population without the federal match from Arkansas Works.

A row of men and one woman stood with guns raised to face paper silhouettes of a torso while their trainer counts off for them to shoot. The Arkansas Armory in Sherwood was holding one of its first shooting exams for the state's new enhanced concealed carry permit this month.

Applicants were aiming to hit an unmoving target 70 percent of the time, but they were also preparing for potentially more chaotic live scenarios as part of Arkansas’s new enhanced concealed carry license. It's for places like college campuses, the state capitol, restaurants, and churches. The license requires a shooting test and eight hours of training that includes, among other topics, what to do and not do in the event of an active shooter.

This week lawmakers came to the capitol for a special session to discuss the budget. To vote on anything outside of the budget during a fiscal session, a two-thirds majority must agree, but that bar hasn’t stopped some lawmakers.

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson called for a $180 million annual tax cut for the state’s biggest earners during his State of the State address Monday kicking off the 2018 fiscal session.

 

Hutchinson said the goal is to compete with other states for business investors. He said that at a recent meeting with the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, he was asked how much top earners pay in Arkansas state taxes.

"And I said, ‘Well, it’s 6.9 percent, and they looked at me and responded, ‘That is worse than Connecticut.’ That story emphasizes the competitive nature of taxes in a mobile society.”

The State Medical Board wants to tighten restrictions on doctors’ abilities to prescribe opioids in some instances, and one of the changes is that patients will be asked for a urine sample for drug testing.

 

Arkansas has the second-highest opioid prescription rate nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the proposed regulations are part of an effort to combat the deadly overdose crisis in the state.

Arkansas Drug Director Kirk Lane told the medical board at a hearing for public comments Thursday that opioid abuse, particularly heroin use, is going up, and overdoses are increasing.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked Arkansas the most obese state in the nation in 2014, the state’s weight epidemic is now leveling off, and health officials hope obesity rates will start to go down.

Public Education funds in Arkansas are meeting bare minimums set under law and not getting any extra money in the governor’s proposed budget for next year.

Education Commissioner Johnny Key fielded lawmakers’ questions and concerns about the proposed budget at a Joint Budget Committee hearing on education funding Wednesday in advance of February’s fiscal session.

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson presented his $5.6 billion budget proposal to state lawmakers Tuesday ahead of this year’s fiscal session and outlined his longer-term vision for reducing taxes.

Hutchinson says there is a projected surplus of $64 million in the new state budget, partly because of higher than expected revenues. He says he’s using the majority of the extra money to create a reserve fund that only the legislature can tap into.

The Arkansas Plant Board has doubled down on its plan to ban Dicamba, the agricultural weed killer. The vote Wednesday was a slight rebuke of state Rep. Bill Sample (R-Hot Springs) and colleagues on a legislative subcommittee that last month asked the board to reconsider the ban, specifically the April 15 cutoff date for spraying Monsanto’s controversial herbicide.

As Congress hashes out the final details of its tax bill this week, a $250 tax credit for teachers who buy classroom supplies has been returned following a public outcry over an earlier draft that had removed it.

 

Kyla Lawrence is a high school Social Studies teacher at the North Little Rock Academy. She buys extra pencils, paper, binders and basic school supplies for her students throughout the year.

State lawmakers took a step toward enhanced concealed carry on college campuses Friday in spite of some pushback from firearm trainers who don’t want to be required to teach the new class for compensation they say is too low.

 

State Rep. Bob Ballinger (R-Hindsville) was among the majority of lawmakers who voted to approve the plan anyway.

“You know, when this is done, there will be less gun-free zones which are soft targets in Arkansas. There will be more people, carrying in more places, being able to protect themselves and others in more places when this rule is implemented. That’s called liberty,” he said at Friday’s legislative council meeting.

Eric Westcott is the manager of Central Rental and Supply, a construction equipment company that sits about three miles from Premium Protein Products, a meat rendering plant that turns animal carcasses into pet food.  

“Imagine the most disgusting smell you’ve ever smelled in your life and then add the heat, and that’s what we deal with here in Russellville,” he said.


In Brinkley, halfway between Memphis and Little Rock, Sandra Kemmer is volunteering in a local cafe to promote the area’s economy by giving out rice products on metal trays.

“Hey ya’ll. You can have some cookies when you come back; it’s rice month,” she tells a couple passing by her stand.

Agriculture is the center of life here, but for decades rural towns like Brinkley have been dwindling and with them a linchpin of daily life, the town newspaper.

Arkansas soybean farmers who rely on a chemical called Dicamba to kill weeds must stop using it during the growing season next year. That’s because it has allegedly been drifting to neighboring farms and killing crops.

A group of teens play volleyball during recess at a youth lockup facility in Harrisburg in Northeast Arkansas. They are in custody for doing things like breaking and entering, possessing a firearm, or stealing a car, and they will be there anywhere from a few months to a couple of years.

The anniversary of the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock has brought national attention to Little Rock and renewed interest in the nine students who made history this month 60 years ago, even as a number of Little Rock residents talk of re-segregation of the school district and the ongoing state control of the city's public schools.

Willie Freeman says he used to avoid smiling, and if he did, it was in a way almost no one could see, with his mouth closed. He was embarrassed of his rotten teeth.

“I wouldn’t go around people and if I did smile, you know, nobody would see me smile,” said Freeman. “My teeth was so messed up, you know, I had gaps everywhere,” he said sitting in an office at Little Rock’s low-income, non-profit Harmony Health Clinic, waiting for an appointment.

Two-year-old Adalynn Landrum lies on a blanket on the floor of her living room. She watches cartoons on a large flat screen television screen hung above a row of stuffed animals placed on a blanket next to her on the floor. Her small face is partially covered by an oxygen feeding cup with a tube connected to a medical cart stationed behind her head. The cart holds an array of devices.

A few more Arkansas school kids hit the state's proficiency level in standardized testing in the 2016-2017 school year compared to the previous year.

The number of students meeting state "readiness" benchmarks on the state's ACT Aspire exam rose by an average of 4.2 percent from last year across subject areas. That number hovers around the 50 percent mark


The Arkansas Department of Education has received largely favorable feedback on a draft plan for its implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, a nationwide replacement for No Child Left Behind.

 

Last month, 114 respondents, mostly K-12 educators, gave input on the department’s second draft of the state’s accountability plan. More than three in four respondents said that overall, the plan lays out a clear vision for the state.

Arkansas Senators Tom Cotton, a member of the Senate healthcare working group, and John Boozman have not given an indication that they would support health legislation projected to cut 22 million people off of Medicaid. Notwithstanding, a vote on the bill has been postponed due to divisions in the Republican Party.

Arkansas Public Media spoke with Sara Rosenbaum, a George Washington University professor and evaluator for the state of Arkansas's expansion program, about the possibility of an end to Medicaid expansion in Arkansas.


Arkansas has until this fall to rewrite a wide-ranging education plan under the new federal law, Every Student Succeeds Act, and the department is taking public comment on the plan on its website through the end of the month.

 

It replaces the Bush Administration era’s No Child Left Behind. In contrast to its predecessor, the law shifts away from ranking schools based on standardized tests and toward state control and a more diverse set of metrics. Test scores, once 70-80 percent of a school rank, will be counted closer to 50 percent. The state proposes to weigh students’ growth as heavily as their one-time test scores in order to rank school performance.

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