Bobby Ampezzan

Managing Editor

Bobby Ampezzan (Bobby@ArkansasPublicMedia.org, (501) 569-8489) is a native of Detroit who holds degrees from Dickinson College (Carlisle, PA) and the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville). He's written for The Guardian newspaper and Oxford American magazine and was a longtime staff writer for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The best dimestore nugget he's lately discovered comes from James Altucher's Choose Yourself: "I lose at least 20 percent of my intelligence when I am resentful." Meanwhile, his faith in public radio and television stems from the unifying philosophy that not everything is serious, but we should be serious about curiosity because curiosity impels discovery.

 

Ways to Connect

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

In Pine Bluff, Levon Lee sits at a table in his garage, the centerpiece of which is a decorative tin filled with marijuana cigarettes. “Matter of fact,” he says, toward the end of an afternoon, “it’s time for me to get to one now. I ain’t had me one all day!”

Lee is one of many Arkansans who would qualify for the state’s legal medical marijuana program but isn't waiting for legal marijuana. In his case, he flies to southern California, to where he had been legally acquiring medical marijuana through a doctor before that state made all marijuana legal Jan. 1. He wouldn’t say how that supply makes its way to his tabletop tin.

Jack Cross in Eureka Springs is a medical marijuana patient in Illinois, but he lives in Eureka Springs.

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

Today the state Supreme Court takes up the matter of the state’s medical marijuana program, stalled since March. If it upholds Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen’s decision nullifying the Medical Marijuana Commission’s top five picks for marijuana growing licenses — indeed the very selection process the Commission used — it could push the forecast for available medical marijuana into 2019.

That would mean money out of the pockets of many early investors such as entrepreneur Brian Teeter.

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

Arkansans seeking a medical abortion with the aid of mifepristone or misoprostol will have to find them in another state.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this week not to hear an appeal from Planned Parenthood paves the way for Act 577 of 2015, and conservatives in the state are applauding the court’s decision.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction. Arkansas is a pro-life state, and we will continue to be so,” says state Rep. Andy Mayberry (R-Hensley), president of the Arkansas Right to Life board.

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson won his Republican Party primary with room to spare Tuesday, beating challenger Jan Morgan by a margin of more than two-to-one.

Likewise, roughly 200,000 Arkansans chose a GOP ballot — almost twice the number who voted in the Democratic primary.  

Hutchinson didn’t extend any appreciation to his opponent in his election night speech or so much as mention her by name. And for her part, Morgan said afterward she would maintain her campaign promise and not endorse her party's nominee in the general election.

Just minutes ahead of a scheduled hearing in Pulaski County Circuit Court, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge asked a federal court to take up a lawsuit against her that alleges she’s obstructing ballot initiatives.

It did, and the hearing was postponed.

In a statement afterward, her office said the attorney general “removed this case to federal court because the plaintiffs asserted claims under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, the federal court is the proper forum to hear the case."

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge is expected to appear in court Friday before Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen. She’s being sued by Alex Gray, a lawyer representing two ballot measure groups, who says she’s not letting the state’s voter-initiated referendum process work.

“Our claim is that the specific subsection the attorney general is using to reject what is now 70 of 70 proposed ballot measures, that provision is unconstitutional,” Gray says.

Actually, another subsection of Article 5, Section 1 of the state constitution — subsection B — allows for the attorney general to rewrite ballot language in anticipation of certification. Rutledge has not done that, Gray alleges in the suit.

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

The state's two leading constitutional office holders — Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge — have had very different springs. Both face re-election contests in November, but only one has a GOP primary challenge May 22.

That may explain why he was on his knees, hands cupping an amphibian, waiting for the start of a toad race at the annual Toad Suck Daze in Conway.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

New data from Arkansas's investor-owned utilities and electrical cooperatives offers evidence that the number of private solar and wind electricity generators is surging. Whether that's fair market forces or a looming, potentially gloomy regulatory decision on rates is up for debate.

Solar power generators, also known as "net metering customers," jumped 56 percent in 2017, from 632 to 988. That's a fraction of the 1.4 million customers in the state who's rates are set by an agency called the Public Service Commission. 

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

When it comes to ballot initiatives, David Couch is a numbers man: for instance, 58 in 2020.

In early March Couch, who's authored or campaigned for more than 20 ballot initiatives, told those gathered at a Rotary Club 99 luncheon that he has ballot language all ready for a personal use or "recreational" marijuana amendment. It's just sitting on his computer.

He just needs to see the question poll at or above 58 percent in Arkansas. Then he will introduce it — the next available presidential election. 

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

The Arkansas Public Service Commission is expected to close a docket soon that could substantially lower a cash incentive for Arkansans (and Arkansas companies) who invest in solar and wind energy production.

The commission is the representative authority over investor-owned utilities, sanctioned monopolies. The commission can affect utility rates — that is, bills. The docket’s been open for three years.

At issue is something called “net metering,” the act of sending electricity (generated by solar power system or windmill) out onto the grid from home or business and getting bill credits from the electrical utility. Created by Act 1781 of 2001, Arkansas’s net metering rate structure currently is 1-to-1. 

Anne Cusack / LA TIMES via GETTY IMAGES

Friday is the deadline for two sides to file arguments with the Arkansas Public Service Commission, the state's three-member panel that sets usage and administrative rates for most utilities in the state.

At issue is "distributed energy generation" — private, typically small solar and wind power systems in the state — and the state's net metering program, whereby those systems get credits worth the full retail rate for every kilowatt-hour they export onto the electrical grid.

Utility companies want to make those credits much smaller. Solar power investors, both private and corporate, as well as advocacy groups like Audubon Arkansas and the Sierra Club that celebrate renewable energy, want further examination of the issue (and no immediate change in rates).

Creative Commons

Arkansas school students are expected to join thousands around the country March 14 in a national school walkout at 10 a.m. (local time). Billed as “Enough,” the demonstration is a coordinated public response to the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

It’s expected to last 17 minutes — one for each victim.

In Fayetteville, school officials are helping students coordinate a walkout at 10 a.m., though a district document also recognizes that some students have obtained a permit from the city to march on the Washington Count Courthouse — a demonstration the district has gently warned against.

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

State Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) cast the decisive 27th vote in favor of granting Gov. Asa Hutchinson's appropriation to the Department of Human Services funding the state's health care coverage for low-income Arkansans called Arkansas Works. 

The bill now heads to the House of Representatives for a vote, and then on to Hutchinson, who's expected to sign it.

CSPAN

Days after Arkansas's biennial fiscal session began last month the CSPAN bus rolled into Little Rock, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson hopped aboard. The very first question moderator John McArdle put to Hutchinson was about a balanced budget — specifically, does Arkansas have one?

"Oh, absolutely. We don’t have a deficit in this state. It’s mandated by the [state] constitution to have a balanced budget, which means that we forecast the revenues, then we spend according to that forecast, and if during the course of a year, we don’t meet forecast then we reduce spending. ... We call it the 'Revenue Stabilization' law, which is a toggle, if you will, but it makes us control spending, reduce spending as needed, to make sure it mirrors our revenue picture.  There’s a few things the federal government could learn from this."

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

When the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration announces its five highest scoring applicants to own and operate a marijuana cultivation facility for the state's germinating medical marijuana industry, it will be a surprise to the Medical Marijuana Commission who scored the 95 applicants.

"These 95 applications were scored individually by each commissioner. They were then brought back to the Alcoholic Beverage Control office [and] turned in individually; so at this point the commissioners are also going to learn along with everyone else those top five scores," Scott Hardin, spokesman for the department, said Monday.

Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media

Secretary of State Mark Martin banged a gavel officially opening the one-week filing period to run for office in Arkansas this year. The first candidate to file was state Treasurer Dennis Milligan, and within minutes he was followed by Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and Gov. Asa Hutchinson — all seeking second terms.

Nationally, politicos and pundits are predicting victory for Democrats in this the first midterm election of the Donald Trump presidency. The president's approval ratings to date have been lower than any candidate since Gallup began surveying voters' opinion, and Democrats won high-profile  gubernatorial and special elections last year, including a surprise upset in a U.S. Senate race in Alabama.

Governor's Office / You Tube

Arkansas's Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson will likely see most of his approximately $5.6 billion proposed budget for fiscal 2018-19 adopted without changes. It goes to the House of Representatives this week, where three in four voting members are Republican, and the Senate, with its strong Republican majority.

"I created a balanced budget that actually has a $64 million surplus that funds education, the priority needs of our state," Hutchinson said. "I'm hoping the legislature will greet that well, and will pass that, and as I give the State of the State address" today, "that'll be something I emphasize."

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

There was a time when Anthony Freeman wanted to be a Razorback. Arkansas’s original land-grant university was the very picture of "college" he held in his mind. He visited and applied and, he says, got in.

That's as far as it got.

A North Pulaski High running back and a Christian youth minister, Freeman had worked to become an Academic Allstar, a best-of-the-best, at the state’s second-biggest community college, Pulaski Technical College (now UA-Pulaski Tech), and he was preparing himself to be an architecture major, a degree field with comparatively few African Americans.

"My mind was set on UA. My heart was set on UA. I'm going to get to UA."

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

On the steps of the Arkansas state Capitol today supporters of ending legal abortion gathered for a rally. Yesterday, another march with very different ralliers called for keeping abortion legal — as well as grooming female political candidates for office, gun control and other liberal aims.

Both marches enjoyed passionate speakers and considerable turnout, but only one enjoyed the presence of the state's most powerful constitutional officeholders, from Gov. Asa Hutchinson down.

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

The Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission’s unanimous vote today not to enforce any immediate action following a decision earlier this month to deny C&H Hog Farm an operating permit was a win for the beleaguered and controversial swine operation, but a slight and temporary one.

The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality announced on Jan. 11 its decision to deny the permit after more than 21 months. The hog operation has been operating on a lapsed permit until now.

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

It’s a small part of Arkansas's overall budget, but Gov. Asa Hutchinson's proposed $400 million dollar appropriation for the Department of Health next year got a strong review and a rebuke today by legislators at the capital.

"There are not enough votes to cut" the budget, complained state Rep. Doug House (R-North Little Rock), "therefore, I’m going to vote for the ER [executive recommendation], in which case the budget gets drafted, and we’ll fight this battle another day."

"Amen, brother," said Sen. Larry Teague (D-Nashville), Joint Budget Committee co-chairman, after roughly an hour's worth of motions, discussion, voice votes and roll calls.

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

Arkansas’s spending on prisons and community corrections got a lengthy examination before a select committee of the state legislature Wednesday, but no legislator took serious issue with the more than half-billion dollar budget.

The Joint Budget Committee took aim at the 2018 budget for the state’s corrections departments, examining everything from health care and prison farms, to the cost of a phone call behind bars.

“If a guy gets put in prison, not only do we put him down there, we fix it to where he can’t even afford to call his family," said state Rep. Kim Hendren (R-Gravette).

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

 Prompted by the Phoenix scandal three years ago, a team of journalism professors and students at the University of Arkansas took a hard look at the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks, and they're giving it a good grade.

But the semester-long investigation does highlight two devastating trends surrounding veterans' and their quality of life.

As part of an ongoing collaboration, students and professors in the Walter J. Lemke Department of Journalism have teamed up with Arkansas Public Media and partner radio station KUAF to publish a series of reports and broadcast the findings.

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

Bill Essert hasn't lived in Arkansas in years. He's a businessman for an agriculture technology company in Cotati, California — BioTherm.

"What we do, we’re showing two things, the O2 Tube, which is all about dissolved oxygen and enhancing the amount of dissolved oxygen by infusing oxygen into your irrigation water, and the benefits of this is enhancing growth, plant growth, higher yields, less fungus and more yield for the amount of bud as well as higher levels of THC."

His parents still do, though. Live in Arkansas, that is — Conway. 

The Arkansas Public Service Commission can be thankful this season for some very outspoken electricity customers. More than 200, mostly private residents have published comments ahead of a public hearing Nov. 30 on Docket 16-027-R, proposed changes to net metering.

Net metering is a utility industry term. When big electricity providers like Entergy, SWEPCo and the electrical cooperatives send electricity into a home, it's "metered," typically by the kilowatt-hour. The transportation lines between power plants and customers is called the grid. When customers with solar panels or windmills produce more electricity than they consume, they can push electricity back out onto that grid and get credits from the power company. Thus, consumption may be offset by contribution.

C-SPAN

Election night 1992 brought a horde of people to the steps of the Old State House in Little Rock, where Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, along with his wife and daughter, and Tennessee Sen. Al Gore and his family, were waiting. Just after midnight, Nov. 4, the party stepped out onto the portico.

"Gives me goose bumps today just thinking about it," said Jimmy Moses, a downtown Little Rock developer.

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

Patients awaiting Arkansas's first-in-the-Bible-Belt medical marijuana program will have to demonstrate that other kind of patience.

The agency administering the program has announced that no licenses will be granted this year or perhaps even early next year.

The application period closed Sept. 18 with a surprise, says the Department of Finance and Administration’s Scott Hardin.

OECC

For interested onlookers like Arkansas Energy Office program manager Chet Howland, the filing today by the Net Metering Working Group is a not-unexpected, slight disappointment.

The group is the creation of the Public Service Commission (at the request of the General Assembly) to examine net metering: the practice of pushing the electricity generated by windmills or solar power systems back onto the grid, and getting credit for it from energy utilities.

AR Dept. of Corrections

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge today has asked Gov. Asa Hutchinson to set the next execution, this after the state made international news for scheduling eight executions in 11 days in April in order to make use of a lethal injection drug set to expire May 1.

Arkansas's three-drug execution protocol calls for midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride, in that order. The state's supply of midazolam expired May 1. The state doesn't have any alternative protocol to execute anyone sentenced to death. 

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

On a blistering Monday afternoon in July, retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. George Hollingsworth sat down with Hot Springs Village Voice managing editor Jeff Meek to talk about the Vietnam War.

"I hope this," Hollingsworth said, meaning Ken Burns' The Vietnam War, and perhaps his own small part here on this set, "could start a national dialogue again about America, not only its tendency to war, but its tendency to govern in a dishonest fashion."

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