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LITTLE ROCK - A state Senate committee has endorsed legislation requiring online retailers who don't collect Arkansas sales taxes to provide a list of purchases made by state residents.

The Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee on Wednesday advanced the House-passed proposal aimed at collecting millions of dollars that lawmakers say the state is missing out on from online purchases. It would require out-of-state companies without a physical presence in Arkansas to inform customers that they owe state sales taxes on their purchases.

A more expansive Senate bill that would require online retailers to collect state sales taxes stalled before a House committee earlier this month. The sponsor of that bill said he'll try again Thursday to pass it.

Amazon announced earlier this month it will begin collecting Arkansas state sales taxes in March.

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock announced on Wednesday that John DiPippa will serve as interim dean of its William H. Bowen School of Law. He starts July 1.

DiPippa had been dean emeritus and a distinguished professor of law and public policy at the school, having first joined the faculty there in 1983 and served as its dean from 2008-12.

He will take over for Dean Michael Hunter Schwartz, who will become the dean of the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law in July. Schwartz has been dean of the UA Little Rock law school since 2013.

The university said its search for a permanent dean is expected to begin this fall.

WASHINGTON — Americans shrugged off rising mortgage rates and bought existing homes in January at the fastest pace since 2007. That has set off bidding wars that have pushed up prices as the supply of available homes has dwindled to record lows.

Home sales rose 3.3 percent in January from December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.69 million, the National Association of Realtors said Wednesday.

Steady job gains, modest pay raises and rising consumer confidence are spurring healthy home buying even as borrowing costs have risen since last fall. Some potential buyers may be accelerating their home purchases to get ahead of any further increases in mortgage rates. With few homes available for sale, buyers are pressured to rapidly close a deal as they find a suitable property.

The typical house for sale was on the market for just 50 days last month, compared with 64 days a year ago. Strong demand is pushing up median home prices, which jumped 7.1 percent from a year earlier to $228,900.

Just 1.69 million homes were on the market nationwide in January, near the lowest level since records began in 1999. It would take just 3.6 months to deplete that supply at the current pace of sales, matching a record low reached in December. Supply is usually equal to about six months of sales in a balanced housing market.

The supply crunch will likely get worse during the upcoming spring buying season, economists say, as demand typically rises by more than supply during that time.

"Relative to the number of households, the number of homes for sale is well through prior historic lows," said Ted Wieseman, an economist at Morgan Stanley. "The level of inventories could be a much bigger challenge moving into much higher sales in the spring and summer."

That, combined with higher mortgage rates, could soon restrain sales.

"We are a bit less gloomy about housing than a couple of months ago but sales will not continue to rise at their recent pace," said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics.

The bulk of the stronger buying is occurring among higher-priced properties, the NAR said. Sales among homes and condominiums priced at $100,000 and below fell nearly 10 percent in January compared with a year earlier. They rose slightly in the $100,000 to $250,000 bracket and jumped by roughly 20 percent in homes priced at higher levels.

Last year, low mortgage rates helped offset rising home prices. Yet now both are rising.

Mortgage rates have climbed since the presidential election. Investors are anticipating that tax cuts, deregulation and infrastructure spending will accelerate growth and push up inflation. That has caused investors to cut back on their bond holdings, pushing up yields.

The average rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage was 4.15 percent last week, according to mortgage buyer Freddie Mac. While that has dipped since earlier this month, it is much higher than last year's average rate of 3.65 percent.

By some measures, the housing market has fully recovered from the bust that began in 2006. Yet its newfound health is creating its own set of challenges.

In high-demand markets, mostly on the West Coast, homes are being purchased after less than a month on the market, according to real estate brokerage Redfin.

Denver was the fastest market last month, Redfin found, with purchase contracts signed just 23 days after listing for a typical home, far below the 43 days that was typical a year earlier. Seattle was the second fastest, with 26 days on the market, followed by Oakland, at 27 days.

The strength in sales should lift growth going forward, as new homeowners purchase furniture, buy appliances and spend more on landscaping and outdoor equipment. Home sales also tend to spur renovations, which helps to update aging properties and generates additional construction work for the broader economy.

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

LITTLE ROCK - Amazon is resisting an effort by Arkansas prosecutors to obtain potential recordings from a slaying suspect's Amazon Echo smart speaker, saying authorities haven't established that their investigation is more important than a customer's privacy rights.

The issue comes in the investigation into the death of Victor Collins, who was found floating face-up in a hot tub in a friend's Bentonville home in November 2015. The friend, James Andrew Bates, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder.

Benton County prosecutors asked a court to force Amazon to provide data that Bates' Echo may have collected. Echo devices "listen" for a user's voice and respond to commands.

In a response filed Friday, Amazon said prosecutors hadn't established the need for Amazon to violate its customers' constitutional rights. Amazon said prosecutors must prove the information isn't available elsewhere.

More: Click here to read Amazon's filing.

Amazon also wants the court to review the recordings before turning them over to prosecutors to ensure they're actually relevant to the case.

"Given the important First Amendment and privacy implications at stake, the warrant should be quashed unless the Court finds that the State has met its heightened burden for compelled production of such materials," Amazon said in the court documents.

The company had previously spoken about prosecutor's request for the information in more general terms, but this is Amazon's first formal legal response to the subpoena for audio recordings and transcripts from the night of Collins' death.

"Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us. Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course," the company said in a statement.

The Associated Press left a phone message Wednesday seeking comment from prosecutors in the case.

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Metroplan announced on Wednesday the promotion of Casey R. Covington to deputy director.

Covington joined the staff in 2004 as a transportation engineer, and was moved up to Central Arkansas Regional Transportation Study director in 2012.

Covington has more than 13 years of planning, engineering and management experience, specializing in transportation planning and forecasting, Metroplan said.

He holds a master's degree in civil engineering from North Carolina State University and a bachelor's in civil engineering from Louisiana Tech University.

Covington is also a registered professional engineer in Arkansas and is certified as a planner through the American Institute of Certified Planners.

Metroplan Executive Director Tab Townsell said in a news release, "In his new role, he will couple his passion for our region with a dispassionate approach to problem solving in order to better our metropolitan area."

Covington said, as deputy director, he will focus upcoming planning efforts on the "impact of technology on personal travel and consequently regional planning decisions."  

According to the news release, his achievements working for Metroplan include conducting the region's first comprehensive pedestrian and bicycle crash analysis and implementing Adaptive Signal Control Technologies.

Covington has also been involved in the 30 Crossing project, coordinating efforts of the Metropolitan Planning Organizations with the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department, Federal Highway Administration and Rock Region Metro.  

He is a member of Leadership Greater Little Rock Class 30, Think Big Little Rock, the State Transportation Innovations Council, the American Planning Association, the Transportation Research Board and the Louisiana Tech Alumni Board of Directors.

Covington also serves on the Technical Advisory Committee for the Arkansas State Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan and is team leader of the Physical and Built Environment Priority Area of Healthy Active Arkansas.

The Broadway Bridge over the Arkansas River that connects the downtowns of Little Rock and North Little Rock is set to open to north-south traffic next week, about a month earlier than planned.

The Arkansas State Highway & Transportation Department announced on Wednesday that contractor Massman Construction Co. of Kansas City, Missouri, had not yet determined a specific time for the opening but work had progressed well throughout the unseasonably warm winter months.

The Highway Department has scheduled a ceremonial first crossing media-only event for 3:30 p.m. Monday. 

Arkansas Highway Commissioners, Highway Department Director Scott Bennett, Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde, North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith and Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola are expected to participate.

Massman included a 180-day schedule to reopen the crossing along with an incentive/penalty clause of $80,000 per day in its $98.4 million contract to replace the bridge. The incentive may be paid for a maximum of 50 days, although no such limit was placed on the penalty.

The bridge closed on Sept. 28, so Massman could stand to gain between $2.16 million and $2.48 million if it opens between 12 a.m. Monday and 12 a.m. next Friday, March 3.  

Danny Straessle of the state Highway Department told Arkansas Business that the deadline to open the bridge was March 30. He explained that Massman could not earn the incentive for March 30.

According to a news release, Massman Construction Co. will spend the next few weeks completing the tie-in of the southbound off-ramp that will carry traffic to westbound Highway 10.

The 16-foot shared-use path will not open for several weeks as the contractor works to tie in ramps on both sides of the river to the Arkansas River Trail.

There will also be occasional lane closures during off-peak times as miscellaneous tasks are completed.  

The Highway Department has scheduled a ribbon-cutting and commissioning for 4 p.m. on April 6 in the west parking lot across from Dickey-Stephens Park. The public is invited attend the celebration.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Video

This week, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette photographer Stephen B. Thornton published drone footage of the bridge.

The American economy is growing too slowly because regulations designed for international financial institutions have been imposed on smaller banks that pose no grave threat, U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Arkansas, and Tom Quaadman, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness, told business leaders in Little Rock on Tuesday.

The event held at the Little Rock Regional Chamber was co-hosted by the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce.

Quaadman and the congressman said policies in play since the Great Recession, and even before, have effectively cut off traditional means of financing for small businesses and need to be updated. Policies implemented post-recession were aimed at stabilizing the economy, but a stable economy is a growing economy and ours isn't growing enough, Quaadman said. 

Solutions discussed at the roundtable included requiring an economic analysis of any new regulation, the planned reintroduction of the Financial Choice Act, a more robust JOBS Act, tax reform and a gradual increase in interest rates by the Federal Reserve Bank. All of the above would, the speakers said, encourage banks to lend to small and growing companies.

Hill said the banking industry has $2 trillion in excess reserves, compared to $1.7 billion before the recession, but it's not being spent on the capital formation or business activity.

Quaadman launched the event by telling those gathered that economic growth over the last eight years has been 1.5 to 2 percent, when the norm in the 1980s and 1990s was 4 percent.

“Instead of determining policies that grow the pie, we’ve had a series of policies that have forced everybody to sort of decide how you continue to divide a shrinking pie, and that’s not really where we should be as a country,” he said.

Quaadman said the current growth rates are enough to stave off another recession but are not enough to create good-paying jobs that are needed.

Hill added that, although the national unemployment rate is low, 15 million people are “underemployed” and that rate is 6-7 percent. He also said major metropolitan areas have been doing well but “flyover country” has not reaped the benefits of the growth the U.S. has enjoyed since the recession ended in 2009.

Hill said the National Association of Counties reported that 93 percent of counties have not recovered from the recession. The congressman then said the Washington Post had reported that half of all business formation occurred in what he called “NFL cities,” with the exception of Austin, Texas. 

Hill also said one issue that needs to be addressed is that it costs a small company about $2 million to go public and $1.5 million-$1.6 million a year to stay public. Those costs need to be lowered, he said. While accelerator programs are great, startups need an initial public offering as an option, Hill said.

Quaadman said the country has less than half the public companies it had 20 years ago and more people are going out of business than are starting a business. 

Hill said the country isn't seeing the investment or capital formation it should and financing corporate expansion only through private equity players doesn't help the economy, although it does support innovation within industries. 

The two men emphasized that financial institutions are less focused on how to be successful and grow than they are on how to keep the regulators in Washington happy. They don't understand some of the more complicated rules and are conservative in compliance to avoid legal pitfalls, they said. 

Slow growth is the result, they said.

Quaadman added that reforms to the regulatory process need to include allowing for more public input. He also said fewer regulators are needed because the number that we have now causes “turf wars.” Regulators may also avoid addressing an issue so they don’t step on toes and an area may not have the oversight needed as a result, Quaadman said.

He provided guests at the roundtable a book produced by the U.S. Chamber’s Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness. Quaadman said it contains more than 100 recommendations to grow the economy compiled from nine months of research.

Speaking specifically about the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform & Consumer Protection Act, Quaadman and Hillman agreed that, while some things in it worked, the 2010 law did not fix the underlying causes of the problems it sought to solve. Hillman added that only three new bank charters have been granted since Dodd-Frank, while 100 or more banks were formed on average each year for the three previous decades.

Asked later about reinstating the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, Hill said actions it prohibited and its repeal were not major contributors to the recession. The congressman also noted that predatory behavior by Wall Street firms is still outlawed by the Bank Holding Act of 1956. 

He said a more thorough look into reform is needed than simply reinstating what the U.S. had before.

Hill also said the Fed owns 40 percent of the world's  U.S. Treasury Agency securities, 15 percent of the world's treasury market and has a $4.5 trillion balance sheet. He said those positions need to change as it gradually increases interest rates. 

Quaadman also said during the roundtable the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an independent agency set up by the Dodd-Frank Act, needs to be reformed because it’s not accountable to Congress, it “litigates through press releases” and it’s not clear what issues the bureau is trying to address. He said consumer protection is an important function but the bureau needs to be more transparent and accountable.

He added that some rules for the financial services industry have been adapted from other countries and applied here, with little input from the public, and that needs to change.

Quaadman also said the Obama administration's fiduciary rule, a requirement that all retirement advisers put their client's interests ahead of their own, was a first step toward the federal government taking over the private retirement space. He said it took away people's ability to choose what 's best for them and negatively impacted the ability of small businesses to provide retirement benefits. 

Two of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's better-known columnists — Frank Fellone and Linda Haymes — were among the casualties of the latest job cuts at the Little Rock daily paper on Tuesday, but their columns are expected to endure on a contract basis.

The ongoing cuts will result in 12 to 15 job terminations, with other full-time employees cut back to part-time work, according to Lynn Hamilton, the paper's president and general manager. 

Fellone spent nearly 20 years deputy editor before stepping back into a reporter's role last summer. Over 38 years at the paper, he was the state editor, an op-ed writer and author of a weekly traffic and highways column, Drivetime Mahatma.

That column will probably continue, he said in a phone interview with Arkansas Business on Tuesday afternoon. 

"I was reduced in force today," Fellone said. "I was part of a reduction in force at the Democrat-Gazette. But they generously offered the opportunity to continue the column, and I anticipate that it will continue."

Haymes had been a columnist and features reporter for the newspaper for 26 years, most notably writing the Paper Trails column in the Arkansas section. 

"NEWS FLASH - I received my first pink slip this morning," Haymes announced on her Facebook page. "I have loved my three decades in print journalism and will miss the work and my wonderful co-workers at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette."

The posting said the paper had "graciously" offered her freelance work, and Hamilton said he expected her column to continue on a contract basis. Reached by phone on Tuesday, Haymes said the post said all she needed to say. A Louisiana State University graduate, she wrote for Baton Rouge Magazine and was communications manager for the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau before her long tenure at the Democrat-Gazette.

Hamilton said the cuts would touch "nearly every department," adding that the paper, owned by privately held Wehco Media Inc., has been leaving some jobs unfilled when staff members leave voluntarily. The cuts came on the heels of eight layoffs in January

"The situation of newspapers is no surprise to anybody," he told Arkansas Business. "To remain profitable we have to adjust our expenses accordingly."

Fellone offered an alternative narrative. "Well, you could argue the flip side, that it was time to cut off the worn out old codger, me. I had been part time since July, and I turned 66 about two weeks ago."

His immediate future is clear, he said. "I plan to take my wife out for a nice dinner, and to sleep in tomorrow morning. Then I'm going to evaluate what's right for us.

"But I want to say I've been enormously fortunate in my newspaper career," Fellone concluded. "I've done a lot, loved every minute of it, and feel blessed. I'd also like to say that I have been treated at the Democrat-Gazette for the past 38 years with nothing but kindness, generosity and professionalism."

CHICAGO- Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale in June will switch its retail line of company-branded chicken products to birds raised without any antibiotics, a top executive said on Tuesday, accelerating the meat sector's shift away from the drugs.

The change will make Tyson, which is the largest U.S. chicken processor, into the world's leading producer of chicken raised without antibiotics, said Sally Grimes, the company's president of North American retail, on a webcast of an industry conference.

It challenges other chicken companies, such as privately held Perdue Farms, that compete for sales to consumers concerned about the use of antibiotics in meat production. In October, Perdue said it had become the first major poultry company to eliminate the routine use of all antibiotics.

More: Read more from today's conference here.

"We think that we can be very competitive in that space in the next 12 months," said Noel White, Tyson's chief operations officer, on the webcast.

Scientists have warned that the routine use of antibiotics to promote growth and prevent illness in healthy farm animals has contributed to rising numbers of dangerous human infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria dubbed "superbugs."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that at least 2 million people in the United States are infected with drug-resistant bacteria each year and that 23,000 die as a direct result.

Tyson previously said it would remove antibiotics that are important to human medicine from its chicken production by autumn 2017. It announced the latest change as new Chief Executive Tom Hayes is finding his footing after taking over for Donnie Smith on Dec. 31.

Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale — fresh off announcing a new leadership team — unveiled a new corporate logo and more details about its growth strategy Tuesday morning at the 2017 Consumer Analyst Group of New York (CAGNY) Conference in Boca Raton, Florida.

CEO Tom Hayes and Sally Grimes, president of Tyson's North American retail operations, charted the publicly traded meat processor's path in a presentation emphasizing sustainability, technology and the company's value-added and branded products.

One of the keys to growth: fresh foods. Grimes said that while fresh foods is functioning as a commodity right now, Tyson can find growth by applying a branded model to it. She noted that 74 percent of supermarket growth is taking place in fresh, unpackaged foods — items often found in the perimeter of grocery store.

Appearing on CNBC later this morning, Hayes said that perimeter is ripe for Tyson to find growth.

"We have so much potential in the fresh food space — it's where the shopper is going today. The perimeter of the store is where all the action is; the center of the store is dying," he said. "So we are doing everything to build fresh foods."

The executives also laid out strategies to find profit while building a sustainable food system, aiming to deliver healthier food, animals, workplaces and environment. 

"As we make the right investments for the future, they'll pay for themselves in the present," Hayes said during the presentation.

Goals in that initiative include expanding its "no-antibiotics ever" chicken offerings, reducing workplace injuries and illnesses by 15 percent year over year, setting "science-based" sustainability goals and improving how chickens are raised.

It was also clear from the presentation just how transformative the $8.55 billion acquisition of Hillshire Brands in 2014 is to the company.

Tyson Foods has reoriented its management team to better focus on higher margin value-added branded products, and it aims to roll out more of those products in the coming months.

The portfolio is aimed at a consumer whose eating habits have changed from three square meals per day to "on demand" eating that takes place throughout the day — a lifestyle that might find Tyson's array of packaged protein products attractive. 

In all, Hayes said Tyson aims to "lead for tomorrow by growing its portfolio of protein-packed brands and delivering sustainable food at scale." 

"The purpose of our company is to raise the world's expectations for how much good food can do, and we're uniquely positioned to deliver just that," he said.

Below, video of Hayes' full CNBC interview, which also includes his comments about a U.S. Securities and Exchange investigation tied to a lawsuit that alleges the company colluded to fix chicken prices. Hayes called the claims "baseless" and that they represented "plaintiffs' lawyers grasping at straws."

Tom Hayes on CNBC

FORT SMITH - Design work is underway for the $58.6 million, star-shaped building that will house the new U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith.

U.S. Marshals Museum President and CEO Patrick Weeks announced Monday that site work is expected to begin next summer and an opening date is planned for September 2019, the Southwest Times Record reported.

About 20,000-square feet of exhibit space will show the history of the oldest federal law enforcement agency in the United States, presented in three main galleries. Also planned are teaching spaces for hands-on discovery, a theater presenting narratives, interactive exhibitions and the Hall of Honor, which will honor fallen U.S. marshals.

According to the museum's website, about $34 million has been raised and fundraising will continue for an additional $24 million.

Reese Rowland, an architect and principal with Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects in Little Rock, said the firm is working through challenges presented by a 50,000-square-foot star-shaped building on riverfront property.

In addition to expanding functionality and visitor flow, the firm has suggested design elements to save on construction costs, including keeping dirt onsite for landscaping. Plans call for digging down 15 feet to 18 feet for foundation work and using dirt for landscaping mounds, or berms, which will add to the museum's "hidden moment" experience, Rowland said.

"It will allow the grade of site to grow out of the ground," Rowland said.

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Windstream Holdings Inc. of Little Rock on Tuesday appointed Kristi Moody, senior vice president and corporate secretary, as general counsel. 

"With more than 22 years of experience as a corporate legal adviser, Kristi has the broad range of skills and experience required for the general counsel position," John Fletcher, executive vice president and chief human resources and legal officer for Windstream, said in a news release.

"Kristi is a strong leader who has done exemplary work throughout her career at Windstream. I look forward to the continuing benefit of her exceptional judgment and effective counsel in her expanded role."

As general counsel, Moody will oversee the company's legal affairs, including strategic initiatives, regulatory and securities law compliance, corporate governance and records, contracts and state government affairs.

Moody joined Windstream in 2006 as senior litigation counsel. She was named vice president of law in 2012 and deputy general counsel in 2013.

Before joining Windstream, Moody was in private practice for 11 years at Wright Lindsey & Jennings LLP of Little Rock.

She has a juris doctorate from the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and a bachelor of arts degree in political science from Louisiana Tech University.

LITTLE ROCK - The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected an attempt by Arkansas inmates to stop their executions over claims that their deaths would be "intolerably painful."

The nine inmates asked the justices to review an Arkansas Supreme Court decision upholding a law that keeps the source of the lethal injection drugs secret. Justices on Tuesday handed down decisions in the Arkansas case, plus a number of other death row cases nationwide.

In a statement, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said the decision "means that executions can move forward in Arkansas, and families of the victims will see justice carried out for those who committed heinous crimes against their loved ones.

"I will immediately provide the Court’s order to the Arkansas Supreme Court, and once the clerk issues the mandate, the current injunction on executions will automatically be lifted. Thereafter, I will inform Governor Hutchinson that executions may resume and request that dates be set for those who have exhausted all appeals."

Arkansas has not executed an inmate since 2005 because of legal challenges and the difficulty of obtaining execution drugs. A batch of one of Arkansas' execution drugs expired New Year's Day and an agency spokesman said Tuesday it had not acquired additional doses of potassium chloride.

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Kirby & Co., the longtime Hot Springs marketing and communications firm, has a hot new name: 61° Celsius.

The new brand is derived from the natural temperature of the thermal springs that also gave Hot Springs its name, according to Stephanie Alderdice, the firm’s owner and creative director.

"Hot Springs' thermal waters have been considered a source of refreshment and energy since the first explorers passed through the Valley of Vapors," she said in a news release. "We believe that ideas spring forth when working with our clients to find interesting ways to highlight the value their businesses and organizations bring to Hot Springs and communities throughout Arkansas."

The firm also has a new creative partnership with Neal Moore, a 30-year advertising veteran who was a founding partner and creative director of The Communications Group in Little Rock. He will work with the agency's public relations projects and contribute to management and creative products. Moore is also a professional voice actor and the author of a weekly column in the Maumelle Monitor.

Alderdice, who joined the firm in 2014, acquired Kirby & Co. last year from founder Kirby Williams, who had owned it since its inception in 1988. Williams left the firm to become chief marketing and retail bank officer at Stone Bank last year.

61° Celsius will continue to serve clients like Visit Hot Springs, the Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce and Stone Bank. The firm offers a wide range of services, including traditional and digital advertising and marketing, social media management, website development, media strategy and placement and public relations.

The Little Rock Technology Park on Tuesday named five new tenants for Phase 1 of its new facility, set to open March 1 at 417 Main St. in downtown Little Rock.  

The tenants are:

  • MobX, a team of senior software engineers that has designed and developed more than 300 mobile apps and served more than 20 million users.

  • Touchwood Technologies Inc., a provider of professional software development services for mobile and cloud applications.

  • Playbook Weight Management, which uses a proprietary algorithm, bioelectric impedance analysis, personalized video, real-world and virtual coaching to help clients take off weight and keep it off.

  • Noble Impact, an education initiative that at one time resided in the tech park's temporary space at 107 Markham St. It helps educators implement a project-based and portfolio-driven learning environment that engages students with real-world experiences and tools, giving them an entrepreneurial skillset and a public service mindset.

  • On Site Hepatology, which provides a mobile on-site service to physicians so that they can track the past, present and future of their patient base and make data-driven treatment desicisions for liver disease patients.

With the addition of these tenants, the tech park said the turnkey space on the second and third floors of the facility is 82 percent leased to 14 companies.

Long-term lease space, which includes previously announced tenants the Venture Center, Ritter Communications and Blue Sail Coffee Roasters, is 25 percent leased.

Dillard's Inc. of Little Rock on Tuesday reported a 6 percent decline in fourth-quarter same-store sales amid what its CEO called "mall traffic declines from continued retail industry challenges."

The publicly traded department store chain (NYSE: DDS) said quarterly net income was $56.9 million, down 32 percent from $84.0 million in the same quarter last year. Earnings per share were $1.72, down from $2.31 in the comparable period.

The results missed Wall Street expectations. The average estimate of four analysts surveyed by Zacks Investment Research was for earnings of $2.34 per share, according The Associated Press.

The company said the most recent fourth quarter included an after-tax asset impairment of $4.2 million, or 13 cents per share, on a cost method investment.

Net sales for the quarter were $1.94 billion, down 6 percent from the same period last year. Total merchandise sales, which exclude revenue from the company's construction company CDI Contractors LLC of Little Rock, were $1.90 billion, down 6 percent from last year.

Same-store sales have now logged year-over-year declines in each of the last six quarters.

"Our operating results reflect another quarter of mall traffic declines from continued retail industry challenges," Dillard's CEO William T. Dillard said in a news release. "In response, we are ramping up our efforts to bring more distinctive brand and service experiences to Dillard's, both in-store and online. Our strong balance sheet provides us support in these challenging times, and during the year we returned $256 million to shareholders."

Also Tuesday, the company reported fiscal-year net income of $169.2 million, down 37 percent from $269.4 million in the previous fiscal year year. Earnings per share were $4.93, down from $6.91 per share in the previous fiscal year year.

For the year, net sales were $6.26 billion, down 5 percent from the previous fiscal year. Total merchandise sales were $6.07 billion, down 5 percent from the previous fiscal year.

Dillard's shares have dropped nearly 7 percent since the beginning of the year. The stock has decreased 21 percent in the last 12 months.

BENTONVILLE - America’s Car-Mart Inc. of Bentonville on Monday reported fiscal 2017 third-quarter income of $2.8 million, down from $4.1 million in reported in the same quarter a year ago.

Revenue was up slightly to $138.7 million in 2017 from $137.4 last year. Earnings per share was 35 cents, down from 47 cents a share in the same quarter of 2016.

The results fell short of Wall Street expectations. The average estimate of three analysts surveyed by Zacks Investment Research was for earnings of 69 cents per share, according to The Associated Press.

A year ago, Car-Mart had 147 stores in the third quarter compared to 143 this quarter. Same-store revenue growth, however, rose to 1.1 percent in the quarter, compared to no growth a year ago.

"Even though we did see a small top line increase with same store revenue increasing 1.1 percent, we were a little disappointed with our top line for the quarter," said CEO Hank Henderson, who said the sluggishness was likely because of delayed income tax refunds. 

Henderson said the company believes it will be able to add new dealerships in the future after its current stores improve. Henderson said Car-Mart was in the process of closing three additional dealerships this coming quarter and he "anticipates" additional closings.

Car-Mart reported selling 10,866 units in the third quarter of fiscal 2017, down from 11,013 it sold in the same quarter a year ago. Because Car-Mart operates fewer dealerships, the number of vehicles sold per store per month rose slightly from 25 to 25.3 while the average sale price rose $30 to $10.629.

America's Car-Mart shares (Nasdaq: CRMT) have fallen 11 percent since the beginning of the year. The stock has increased 52 percent in the last 12 months.

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

BENTONVILLE - Wal-Mart drew more shoppers to its namesake stores in the United States and its e-commerce sales soared, signs that its efforts to lower prices and improve web services are helping it compete better against online leader Amazon.

The company saw the biggest gain in a key revenue measure in its U.S business in four years, marking the tenth consecutive increase. The number of customers rose for the ninth straight quarter. And online sales rose 29 percent in the third straight quarter of gains after about two years of a slowing trend.

Still, the world's largest retailer reported fourth-quarter earnings that fell 18 percent as its results have been squeezed by its investments in online upgrades and stores. The results did beat Wall Street expectations. And total sales were hurt by a stronger U.S. dollar, which is making its international business more challenging.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. also said Tuesday it has seen sales weaken at the beginning of the first quarter in part because a slowdown in tax refunds amid a new tax rule. And it warned that any tax on imported goods, as in a proposal Republicans in Congress have floated, would raise prices and would hurt shoppers.

Shares rose in morning trading.

Wal-Mart, like other traditional retailers, has been trying to improve its online operations to be a stronger challenger to online leader Amazon.com. The holiday shopping season was challenging for many retailers, underscoring the changes brick-and-mortar stores need to make. But Wal-Mart's results show that its aggressive efforts are helping.

"We're moving with speed to become more of a digital enterprise and better serve our customers," CEO Doug McMillon said in a statement.

Wal-Mart has retooled its own online shopping programs and bought up some smaller companies with online strengths. It spent more than $3 billion for Jet.com in a deal aimed at helping it attract younger and more affluent customers. And it just announced that it had bought the outdoor and gear seller Moosejaw for $51 million as it expands its online product selections. Moving closer to the terms of Amazon's powerhouse Prime program, Wal-Mart is now offering free two-day shipping on online orders of its most popular items with a minimum purchase order of $35. Amazon Prime still costs $99 a year, but comes with services like streaming music and video. Executives said Tuesdaythat shoppers are responding well to the program.

Last year, Wal-Mart said it planned to slow its new store openings and pour money into its online efforts, technology and store remodels.

Global e-commerce sales grew 29 percent in the quarter, up from 20.6 percent in the prior period. Wal-Mart said it's working to accelerate the integration between Wal-Mart and Jet.com, and trying to take advantage of its scale in areas like shipping and sharing its product selection. Wal-Mart last year also raised its stake in JD.com, China's No. 2 e-commerce site. But online sales still only account for a fraction of its total.

Besides melding its online and store businesses so shoppers can jump back and forth, Wal-Mart is has launched changes designed to make its stores cleaner and its customer service friendlier and faster. The company has also invested $2.7 billion in higher wages and training for workers, a move that it says has helped to lower turnover and improve customer service.

Wal-Mart and other retailers face new challenges, as shoppers face uncertainty about health care and other issues under President Donald Trump. Wal-Mart and other retailers also oppose the Republican proposal aimed at encouraging manufacturing in the U.S. that would essentially tax imported goods - something the retail industry says would increase prices for shoppers on items like clothes and toys by as much as 20 percent. The National Retail Federation, the nation's largest retail trade group, estimates the proposal would cost the average family $1,700 in the first year alone. Those kinds of increases would hit hardest on low-income shoppers, Wal-Mart's main customers.

The Bentonville, Arkansas-based company said Tuesday it earned $3.76 billion, or $1.22 per share in the three months ended Jan. 31. That compares with $4.57 billion, or $1.43 per share, a year ago. Excluding certain items, earnings per share were $1.30. Sales excluding membership fees rose 0.8 percent to $129.75 billion.

Analysts had expected earnings of $1.28 per share on revenue of $131.13 billion, according to FactSet. Wal-Mart says a key revenue metric rose 1.8 percent at its U.S. namesake business, up from 1.2 percent in the previous quarter. It was the biggest gain since the third quarter of 2012. Customer traffic rose 1.4 percent in its U.S. business.

The company forecasts earnings per share of 90 cents to $1 for the first quarter and $4.20 to $4.40 for the year. Analysts expect 96 cents per share for the first quarter and $4.32 per share for the year, according to FactSet.

Wal-Mart's shares (NYSE: WMT) rose 3 percent, or $2.27 or $71.64 in morning trading.

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal authorities are stepping up investigations at Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers due to a sharp increase in opioid theft, missing prescriptions or unauthorized drug use by VA employees since 2009, according to government data obtained by The Associated Press.

Doctors, nurses or pharmacy staff at federal hospitals — the vast majority within the VA system — siphoned away controlled substances for their own use or street sales, or drugs intended for patients simply disappeared.

Aggravating the problem is that some VA hospitals have been lax in tracking drug supplies. Congressional auditors said spot checks found four VA hospitals skipped monthly inspections of drug stocks or missed other requirements. Investigators said that signals problems for VA's entire network of more than 160 medical centers and 1,000 clinics, coming after auditor warnings about lax oversight dating back to at least 2009.

"Drug theft is an area of concern," Jeffrey Hughes, the VA's acting assistant inspector general for investigations, told AP. He said the monthly inspections could help the VA uncover potential discrepancies and root out crime.

Both the inspector general's office and the Drug Enforcement Administration said they have increased scrutiny of drug thefts from the VA, with the DEA reporting more criminal investigations.

It's not clear if the problem is worse at the VA than at private facilities, where medical experts and law enforcement officials say drug theft is also increasingly common in a time of widespread opioid abuse in the U.S. But the VA gets special scrutiny from lawmakers and the public, given Americans' esteem for ex-servicemembers served by the agency and because of past problems at the VA, especially a 2014 wait-time scandal in which some patients died.

"Those VA employees who are entrusted with serving our nation's wounded, ill and injured veterans must be held to a higher standard," said Joe Davis, spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The drug thefts will be among the challenges facing newly confirmed VA Secretary David Shulkin, who served as the department's undersecretary of health while the drug problem was growing. At his confirmation hearing this month, Shulkin said he was proud that the VA identified the opioid addiction problem before others did and "recognized it as a crisis and began to take action."

Still, the VA acknowledges it has had problems keeping up with monthly inspections and said it was taking steps to improve training. It also said it was requiring hospitals to comply with inspection procedures and develop plans for improvement.

It did not respond to AP requests made three weeks ago to provide a list of VA facilities where drugs had been reported missing or disciplinary action was taken, saying it was still compiling the information.

Reported incidents of drug losses or theft at federal hospitals jumped from 272 in 2009 to 2,926 in 2015, before dipping to 2,457 last year, according to DEA data obtained by AP. "Federal hospitals" include the VA's more than 1,100 facilities as well as seven correctional hospitals and roughly 20 hospitals serving Indian tribes.

The inspector general's office estimates there are nearly 100 open criminal probes involving theft or loss of VA controlled substances.

Three VA employees were charged this month with conspiring to steal prescription medications including opioids at the Little Rock VA hospital. The inspector general's office says a pharmacy technician used his VA access to a medical supplier's web portal to order and divert 4,000 oxycodone pills, 3,300 hydrocodone pills and other drugs at a cost to the VA of $77,700 and a street value of $160,000.

Christopher Thyer, the U.S. attorney overseeing the case, said the employees were abusing their position to steal from taxpayers and "poison the communities we live in with dangerous drugs."

The drug thefts from VA also raise the possibility that patients will be denied medication they need or that they will be treated by drug-impaired staff.

In one case, a former VA employee in Baltimore pleaded guilty on charges that he injected himself with fentanyl intended for patients heading into surgery, then refilled the syringes with saline solution. Patients received solution tainted with the Hepatitis C virus carried by the employee.

Dr. Dale Klein, a VA pain management specialist, said some of his patients suspected they weren't getting the drugs they needed, including one patient with an amputated leg who had to do without morphine because a VA pharmacy said it did not have enough in supply.

Klein, who is part of a whistleblowers network called VA Truth Tellers, ran a VA pain clinic from 2015 to 2016 and has filed a retaliation claim against VA, saying the VA restricted his work after he voiced complaints. The VA has said it was looking into the claims.

Klein described several of VA's inventory lists as inconsistent or a "slapdash rush job." That concern was underscored by the findings from the Government Accountability Office, released last week, that drug stockpiles were not always being regularly inspected. Klein's attorney, Natalie Khawam, says she's heard similar complaints from other clients at their VA hospitals.

The GAO review, covering January 2015 to February 2016, found the most missed inspections at VA's hospital in Washington, D.C., according to a government official familiar with confidential parts of the audit. Monthly checks were missed there more than 40 percent of the time, mostly in critical patient care areas, such as the operating room and intensive care units. That adds to the risk of veterans not receiving their full medications.

The Washington hospital also missed inspections of the facility's pharmacy for three straight months, violating VA policy, according to the official, who insisted on anonymity to reveal findings that weren't public. In the last year, the hospital had at least five incidents of controlled substances that were "lost" or otherwise unaccounted for, according to the DEA.

Other problems were found in VA hospitals in Seattle, Milwaukee and Memphis, Tennessee. Milwaukee had the fewest, which the GAO attributed to a special coordinator put in place to ensure inspection compliance.

Responding to the findings, the House Veterans Affairs Committee planned a hearing on the inspection issue. Its chairman, Rep. Phil Roe, a physician, said failing to follow protocol is serious and "should not be tolerated within VA."

Notable Cases 

Government data obtained by The Associated Press show that incidents of drug loss or theft at federal hospitals have jumped nearly tenfold since 2009 to 2,457 last year, spurred by widespread opioid abuse in the U.S. Federal authorities report that doctors, nurses or pharmacy staff — mostly in the Department of Veterans Affairs health system — had siphoned away controlled substances, while in other cases, drugs intended for patients simply disappeared.

Some notable cases involving alleged VA drug theft:

ARKANSAS

Three VA employees in Little Rock were charged this month with conspiring to steal prescription medications, including opioids, from the John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans Hospital. A 2016 investigation by the VA inspector general's office alleges that a pharmacy technician used his VA access to a medical supplier's web portal to order and divert 4,000 oxycodone pills, 3,300 hydrocodone pills and other drugs, costing the VA $77,700. The VA employees were also charged with conspiring to distribute those drugs, which had a street value of more than $160,000.

UTAH

An associate chief of pharmacy at the VA medical center in Salt Lake City recently pleaded guilty to acquiring possession of a controlled substance by fraud, according to the inspector general's office. The VA employee was accused of diverting about 25,000 pills, including oxycodone, hydromorphone, Adderall, buprenorphine, Ritalin, and tramadol from the inpatient pharmacy from October 2011 to March 2015. A spokeswoman for the VA facility, Jill Atwood, has said the hospital since added new software, training and made procedural changes to ensure that similar thefts don't happen again.

NEW YORK

A former hospice nurse at the VA medical center in Albany was sentenced last year to more than six years in prison after admitting to stealing pain medication intended for patients. An investigation alleges the VA nurse stole the painkiller oxycodone hydrochloride from syringes to feed his drug addiction and replaced the contents with Haldol, an anti-psychotic medication. At his sentencing hearing, family members of some of the hospice patients gave statements detailing the pain and suffering the nurse inflicted on dying veteran patients.

RHODE ISLAND

A former registered nurse in the intensive care unit of the Providence VA medical center pleaded guilty last year to stealing prescription drugs. Authorities say the nurse admitted that on dozens of occasions over several months in 2015 she used an override feature of an automated medication dispensing system to obtain hundreds of controlled substance pills, such as oxycodone and morphine. The pills weren't prescribed for or provided to patients. The IG's office says the nurse had previously been fired from a private hospital for allegedly diverting controlled substances, but was hired at the VA after making false claims in her application.

CALIFORNIA

A former resident anesthesiologist at the VA medical center in West Los Angeles pleaded guilty in 2015 to theft of public property and possession of a controlled substance while treating a veteran. Authorities say while providing anesthesia care to a veteran in surgery, the doctor passed out in the operating room after taking a sedative and injecting himself with controlled substances including fentanyl. His fully conscious patient lay nearby and said he was initially frightened that the commotion was due to his own medical condition, according to news reports.

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

LITTLE ROCK - Two years ago, a bill blasted by critics as anti-LGBT upended the final days of a legislative session that Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson had hoped to focus on tax cuts and health care reform. A plan by GOP lawmakers to push for a "bathroom bill" targeting transgender people means the Legislature is about to dive into a reprise of that battle.

A one-sentence bill filed last week offered little specifics, other than saying its purpose was to address "gender identity and bathroom privileges." A lawmaker co-sponsoring the measure said, once finalized, it'll require people to use public restrooms consistent with the gender on their birth certificates.

"If they were born a male, that's where they've got to use the bathroom," Republican Sen. Gary Stubblefield said.

The plan has spurred warnings from Hutchinson, as well as tourism and business groups, that such a measure isn't needed and could subject the state to the widespread backlash and boycotts North Carolina faced over its bathroom law. That measure prompted the NBA to move its All-Star Game out of Charlotte and the NCAA to pull seven championship events out of the state, while major companies abandoned or halted plans to expand in North Carolina. A similar measure considered in Texas is raising similar concerns of economic fallout, with the NFL warning the state could be passed over for future Super Bowl sites if it becomes law.

"We don't need that in Arkansas, and if there's a North Carolina-type bill, then I want the Legislature not to pass it," Hutchinson told reporters last week.

The Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau warned the measure could threaten millions of dollars central Arkansas has seen through meetings, tourism and sporting events.

"Should this bill pass and become law, central Arkansas's economic landscape will severely suffer; the adverse effects on convention and sports related business will be substantial," said Gretchen Hall, the bureau's president and CEO.

Republican Sen. Greg Standridge, the bill's co-sponsor, defended the legislation and said, once finalized, it'll be more narrowly crafted than what was enacted in North Carolina.

"This is not a North Carolina bill, trust me," Standridge said. "You'll see when it's all said and done."

The uproar and national attention Arkansas could see over the bathroom bill will likely surpass what the state Legislature witnessed in 2015, when Hutchinson asked lawmakers to rework a religious objections bill that a wide array of opponents that included Wal-Mart and the governor's son called discriminatory. That session was also marked by a bill aimed at preventing cities and counties from enacting anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people - a bill that Hutchinson allowed to become law despite his concerns it infringed on local control.

The debate could also re-open the wounds among lawmakers over the way the religious objections bill was revised. Stubblefield, for example, had objected two years ago to a shell bill he had sponsored being used as the vehicle for the reworked religious objections measure.

It also comes as the state is facing challenges elsewhere in court over other LGBT rights issues. The Arkansas Supreme Court is weighing whether a Fayetteville anti-discrimination ordinance violates the state law intended to ban local LGBT protections, and could rule on whether that state law should stand. The U.S. Supreme Court, meanwhile, was asked last week to review a state ruling preventing same-sex couples from getting both spouses listed on their child's birth certificate without a court order.

The shell bill filed last week may be only one part of the debate. Other ideas floated among lawmakers would focus on public school restrooms and increasing penalties for crimes in public bathrooms.

"It's a definite thing that there's going to be a bathroom bill pursued," Standridge said. "We just don't know if it's going to be our bill or someone else's bill."

Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/ademillo.

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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