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2013 Top 10: Arkansas' 'private option,' Mayflower oil spill top AP list

Posted: January 1, 2014 at 9 a.m.

Martha Shoffner, the city of Mayflower and the 89th General Assembly all made the top 10 news stories of 2013.

In a dramatic vote in the waning days of the session, Arkansas' Legislature approved an innovative plan to expand Medicaid under the federal health care law — but in a way that satisfied more than three-quarters of the Republican-controlled House and Senate.

The "private option" plan initially failed in the House, but lawmakers scrambled to drum up support for the one-of-a-kind plan that uses Medicaid money to buy private insurance for 250,000 Arkansans.

Arkansas' approach to expand insurance for low-income residents — while still distancing itself from President Barack Obama's signature health-care law — was voted the top story of 2013 by Associated Press members.

The full list, prepared by Arkansas reporters who covered the state's top stories in 2013, follows:

1. ARKANSAS MEDICAID

Meeting for the first time since Republicans won control of the House and Senate in the 2012 elections, the Arkansas Legislature seemed unlikely to embrace components of Obama's health care law. But the measure slowly gained support throughout the spring as more and more Republican state senators and representatives signed on.

Under the proposal, low-income citizens — those who make up to 138 percent of the poverty line, which amounts to $15,415 per year — can receive private insurance purchased using federal Medicaid dollars. As of mid-December, about 93,000 people had applied for coverage under the plan.

INTERACTIVE: Health-care extras

2. ARKANSAS OIL SPILL

On March 29, a rupture in the ExxonMobil Pegasus pipeline caused an oil spill in the Northwoods subdivision of Mayflower, resulting in a sea of crude oil being spilled throughout lawns and streets and threatening nearby Lake Conway. ExxonMobil and local officials recovered nearly 12,000 barrels of oil and water in two days. More than 20 homes were evacuated and some residents elected not to return while air, water and soil samples were taken.

Lawsuits from several property owners as well as from Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel are still pending despite ExxonMobil's attempts to dismiss all claims. — Ricky Duke, Log Cabin Democrat

INTERACTIVE: Mayflower oil spill

3. LITTLE ROCK DESEGREGATION

The Pulaski County school desegregation lawsuit has its roots in the famous 1957 integration of Little Rock Central High School by nine black students. In 1982, the Little Rock School District sued the state and two neighboring districts, blaming them for continuing desegregation issues. Little Rock's proposed remedy: school district consolidation. In 1989, the warring parties agreed to a financial settlement that included extra desegregation funding to the three school districts to support magnet schools and unlimited student transfers between districts. The extra desegregation aid grew to nearly $70 million per year. A tentative agreement would end the payments within four years. — Danny Shameer, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

DOCUMENTS: School districts takeover and desegregation

4. ARKANSAS SENATE

U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, a two-term Democratic senator, launched his re-election bid in 2013 facing pressure from the right and the left. Conservative activists such as the Club for Growth began airing ads against Pryor, as did gun control advocates critical of his vote against expanded background checks for firearms sales.

Freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton in August announced that he was challenging Pryor's re-election bid, accusing the Democratic senator of standing more with President Barack Obama than the state. Pryor accused Cotton of alienating farmers, students and many others with his votes since joining Congress. — Andrew DeMillo, Associated Press

5. ARMING TEACHERS

An Arkansas school district announced plans to arm teachers, administrators and other school employees during 2013, making use of a little-known state law that allows licensed, armed security guards on campus.

But the plan faced criticism when Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said in August that the licensing law was intended for private security companies. State law prohibits guns on campus, but an exception is included for licensed security guards.

A state board said the schools could keep their licenses for two more years. — Jeannie Nuss, AP

INTERACTIVE: U.S. gun-control debate

6. ARKANSAS TREASURER

Treasurer Martha Shoffner was arrested at her Newport home in May after the FBI said it caught her on tape accepting a $6,000 payment from a bond broker. The FBI said in an affidavit that the broker would roll up cash in $6,000 increments and have it delivered to Shoffner's office every six months. At least two of the payments were delivered in a pie box, pie included. Shoffner, a Democrat re-elected to a four-year term in 2010, resigned and faces trial in March. — Jeannie Nuss, AP

MULTIMEDIA STORY: Martha Shoffner

7. ARKANSAS ABORTION LAWS

The Legislature passed two separate sets of restrictions on abortion, one to ban abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy and another stopping them at 20 weeks. Opponents of the law sued to block the 12-week ban and a federal judge in May blocked its enforcement pending a court review of its constitutionality. Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, vetoed both of the measures but the Republican-controlled House and Senate overrode the vetoes. — Chuck Bartels, AP

INTERACTIVE: Abortion in the U.S.

8. ARKANSAS FLOODING

A May 31 flood swept Scott County, killing five people and causing massive damage. On June 1, as emergency responders worked to rescue Y City flood victims, a loud crash thought to be a bridge collapsing was actually a flood-ridden home imploding. Sheriff Cody Carpenter and Arkansas Game and Fish Commission wildlife officer Joel Campora had traveled to the home by boat to rescue two people inside, but were swept away by the water. Also killed were Cathy Ann Holder, 41, of Dallas, and Vivian Sue Reimer, 65, and Regina Kay Shearn, 60, both of Y City. — Jennifer Gill, Southwest Times Record, Fort Smith

9. ARKANSAS GOVERNOR

Despite an unpredictable start, the race to succeed Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe could put voters in a familiar position: Choosing between a Democratic former lawmaker named Mike and a Republican named Asa. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel's decision in January to drop his bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination cleared the way for former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross to reconsider an earlier decision and seek the state's highest office. Asa Hutchinson, who lost to Beebe in the 2006 election, announced in January he was running for the state's top office. Little Rock businessman Curtis Coleman and state Rep. Debra Hobbs are also seeking the Republican nomination. — Andrew DeMillo, AP

10. STEEL MILL

State and local officials unveiled a plan in January to bring a $1.1 billion steel mill to a tract of land just south of Osceola, along the Mississippi River. Big River Steel promises to provide 525 jobs to the region, which has long suffered from high unemployment and other economic woes. By April, the Arkansas Legislature approved $125 million in state financing to assist with startup costs associated with the new mill. But the project was not without opposition. Nucor Steel, which operates two steel mills in Mississippi County, lobbied hard against state funding for the project. — Andy Weld, Blytheville Courier News

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