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LITTLE ROCK - Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge asked the nation's highest court on Friday to weigh in on whether a 1994 federal law prevents Arkansas State Police from releasing all driver and survivor information on motor vehicle accident reports.

Rutledge filed a petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review a state court ruling that the information, including names and addresses of drivers and passengers in auto accidents handled by state police, is public. The Arkansas Supreme Court in April ruled that the information protected by the federal Driver's Privacy Protection Act does not include information on accident reports. The 1994 law was aimed at protecting the privacy of information contained in state motor vehicle records, Rutledge said in the filing with the court.

"Without this court's review, numerous state agencies, employees and others face potential liability and countless others will be deprived of several important protections in federal law," Rutledge said in the filing.

Little Rock attorney Daniel Wren filed the lawsuit against the Arkansas State Police last year for access to crash reports after his Freedom of Information Act request for them was denied. Wren, who did not immediately return a message left Friday afternoon, admitted in his filing that he was trying to gain access to a batch of reports to solicit clients.

The state Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that Wren was entitled to the records under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

State Police adopted a policy withholding the information from police reports, the same time a new law went into effect in Arkansas requiring law enforcement officers to withhold juvenile information on those reports.

Rutledge's office had argued before the Arkansas high court that in most cases, troopers use the magnetic strip on the back of drivers' licenses to auto-populate the accident report information. The strip links directly to information provided by the state's motor vehicle information system, which can only release a driver's information to a handful of approved agencies or people.

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

WASHINGTON — Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said Friday that the case for raising interest rates has strengthened in light of a solid job market and an improved outlook for the U.S. economy and inflation. But she stopped short of offering any timetable.

Yellen sketched a generally upbeat assessment of the economy in a speech to an annual conference of central bankers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. She pointed to steady gains in employment and strength in consumer spending.

She also noted that while inflation is still running below the Fed's 2 percent target, it is being depressed mainly by temporary factors.

"In light of the continued solid performance of the labor market and our outlook for economic activity and inflation," Yellen said, "I believe the case for an increase (in the Fed's benchmark borrowing rate) has strengthened in recent months."

Still Yellen declined to hint at whether the Fed might raise rates at its next policy meeting, Sept, 20-21, or at its subsequent meetings in early November and mid-December. Instead, she stressed, as she frequently has, that the Fed's rate decisions will depend on whether the freshest economic data continues to confirm its outlook.

"As ever," she said, "the economic outlook is uncertain, and so monetary policy is not on a preset course."

Economists took her remarks to mean that while a rate hike remains possible at the Fed's September meeting, it isn't necessarily likely.

"We think most officials will want to see more concrete evidence of a rebound in GDP growth and a rise in inflation towards the 2 percent target with a December move still appearing the most likely outcome," said Andrew Hunter, an economist with Capital Economics.

Hunter pointed to a government report Friday that the economy, as measured by the gross domestic product, grew at an anemic 1.1 percent annual rate last quarter as evidence that the Fed likely wants to see stronger growth.

In December, the Fed raised its benchmark rate modestly in response to a brighter economic picture, notably a job market nearing full health. The rate had been kept at a record low near zero since the depths of the 2008 financial crisis.

At the time, the Fed foresaw four additional rate increases in 2016. But since then, global economic pressures, financial market turmoil and a brief slump in the U.S. job market have kept the Fed on the sidelines.

Some economists have said they think conditions are ripe for the Fed to boost rates next month. Others say they foresee no action until after the election in December at the earliest.

Two close Yellen allies — William Dudley, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and Stanley Fischer, the Fed's vice chairman — suggested in the past week that a strengthening economy would soon warrant a resumption of rate increases.

In her speech Friday, Yellen added that the Fed still believes that future rate increases, whenever they occur, will be "gradual."

Some have said that if the Fed does decide to act in September, it would need to further prepare investors. After Yellen's speech, data from the CME Group indicated that investors foresee only a 24 percent probability of a rate hike in September and about a 58 percent chance by December.

Yellen was the lead-off speaker Friday for the annual conference sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City and attended by members of the Fed's board of governors in Washington and officials from the Fed's 12 regional banks and monetary leaders from around the world.

The conference's theme is "Designing Resilient Monetary Policy Frameworks for the Future," reflecting concern that the global economy has become trapped in a slump of low growth and low inflation and uncertainty about how central banks should respond.

In advance of Yellen's speech Friday, George, Fischer and eight other Fed officials met Thursday with about 120 activists from the Campaign for Popular Democracy's Fed Up coalition. The group of policy activists, labor unions and community groups has been lobbying the Fed to keep rates low to allow the economy to strengthen enough to benefit more Americans.

The group, wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan, "We Need a People's Fed," posed questions about economic policy and the need for diversity to the Fed officials who took part in the hour-long discussion.

The coalition also wants the Fed and Congress to consider changes in the makeup of the boards of directors of the 12 regional banks to promote more diversity among a group of officials that is mainly white and male and dominated by bankers.

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Tacos 4 Life plans to open its first location in Little Rock early next year, on an out-lot at Shackleford Crossing Shopping Center, the real estate development company Haag Brown Commercial announced on Friday.

It will be the fourth restaurant for the mini-chain, based in Conway and owned by Austin Samuelson and his wife, Ashton. There are currently two Tacos 4 Life restaurants in Conway and one in Fayetteville.

"We are growing, and excited to be opening a location in Little Rock which is a tremendous milestone for our young company," Austin Samuelson said in a news release from Haag Brown, which is headquartered in Jonesboro.

The stand-alone restaurant fronts South Shackleford Road, just east of Interstate 430, "creating massive exposure for the site," the news release said. It will occupy a 1-acre lot between the Longhorn Steakhouse and the Boomerang Carwash.

Hank Kelley and Eric Varner of Flake & Kelley Commercial of Little Rock represented the seller, Shackleford Crossing Investors LLC.

The Tacos 4 Life restaurants donate 22 cents toward feeding a child for every meal purchased at the restaurants. That 22 cents, which goes to the nonprofit Feed My Starving Children, is the cost of a meal for a malnourished child.

"We've assisted Tacos 4 Life in creating a vigorous development plan and Little Rock was the most logical place to start," said Joshua Brown, a principal in Haag Brown. "It is in the heart of Arkansas and will provide an anchor to branch out from."

"Our main focus as a restaurant is to feed hungry children by providing customers with made-from-scratch amazing food," said Ashton Samuelson. "Opening another location will allow us to build relationships in a new community and raise even more meals for hungry children."

Austin and Ashton Samuelson were recognized in the 2016 class of Arkansas Business' 40 Under 40. They told Arkansas Business that they want to have 20 company-owned stores by the end of 2020.

Hendrix College of Conway said Friday that it has reached its goal to meet a $1 million challenge grant from the J.E. and L.E. Mabee Foundation of Tulsa.

The college will use the money for construction of the Mary Ann and David Dawkins Welcome Center at the northeast entrance to campus. Construction, on the site of the former Raney Building, will begin this fall

The new building will house the Hendrix Admission and Financial Aid offices, currently in Ellis Hall, a 101-year-old building at the south entrance of campus.

Last year, Hendrix received a $26 million gift from Mary Ann Dawkins’ estate to support scholarships, promote college affordability and launch the school's fundraising effort for the new welcome center.

"I never get tired of hearing from prospective students and families about how friendly our community is," Hendrix President Bill Tsutsui said in a news release Friday. "The new Welcome Center will make sure that every guest is as excited about their first visit to Hendrix as our freshmen are when they move in and as our alumni are when they reunite with classmates 50 years after graduation."

To meet the $1 million Mabee Challenge, Hendrix had to raise $2 million in new gifts and pledges by September. 

Start Here Little Rock, an initiative to increase the engagement of women and minorities in the entrepreneurial process in Little Rock, will host an event with panelists and speakers from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. 

The organization expects more than 300 people to attend.

Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service; Steve Rice, founder of Start Here Little Rock; a panel of women and minority entrepreneurs; and a panel of local entrepreneur support organizations will speak at the Ron Robinson Theater, 100 River Market Ave.

Sericia Cole will be the event emcee.

The first panel includes:

  • Chris Bell, founder and principle consultant of full-service public accounting firm Complete Consulting of Little Rock;
  • Jeston George, founder and CEO of technology company Apptegy of Little Rock;
  • Ivan Hudson, founder of the Ivan Hudson Agency, a Farmers Insurance office in Little Rock;
  • Tina McCord, founder and CEO of Zuni Learning Tree, a digital platform for teachers and parents;
  • Gina Radke, CEO of aerospace interior hardware manufacturer Galley Support Innovations of Sherwood;
  • Maf Sonko, founder and CEO of financial technology startup LumoXchange of Atlanta,
  • Tinisha Turner, founder of BigUms Catering of Maumelle; and
  • Maura Yancy, president and editor-in-chief of the Hola! media group of Little Rock. 

The organization panel includes representatives from the Arkansas Innovation Hub in North Little Rock, the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center (ASBTDC), the Delta Regional Authority, the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Venture Center in Little Rock.

Start Here Little Rock was launched in collaboration with the Clinton School an the Arkansas Association of Black Professionals.

According to a news release, there is 90 percent or higher opportunity gap for women and minority entrepreneurs seeking capital investment and the initiative seeks to close this gap.

Rutherford said in a release, "Democratizing access to capital for entrepreneurs from every part of our society is vital for success in modern innovation. Start Here Little Rock provides a starting point for minority and women entrepreneurs by raising awareness and providing access to the resources and support already available in the thriving startup community right here in Little Rock.”

"Resources for entrepreneurs exist in our community,” Katie Milligan, community organizer for Start Here Little Rock, said in the release. “The first step is to raise awareness among women and minority entrepreneurs, or would-be entrepreneurs, about what tools exist and work together to increase engagement by providing access to key resources, education and support. Start Here aims to begin the conversation towards building a more inclusive and accessible ecosystem.”

Arkansas Tech University President Robin E. Bowen and University of the Ozarks President Richard L. Dunsworth signed a memorandum of understanding to create an academic collaboration to benefit international students, the schools announced Friday.

The agreement was formalized during a meeting on Thursday.

Eligible U of O international undergraduate students will be conditionally admitted into the Arkansas Tech master of arts degree program in teaching English to speakers of other languages.

U of O international students with a minimum cumulative grade point average of 3.0 may apply for conditional graduate admission at Arkansas Tech during their final semester of undergraduate coursework. Conditional acceptance may be granted in earlier semesters per approval from the head of the Arkansas Tech Department of English and World Languages and the dean of the Arkansas Tech Graduate College.

"This agreement will benefit University of the Ozarks undergraduate international student recruitment efforts and support Arkansas Tech University graduate program enrollment," reads a portion of the MOU signed by Bowen and Dunsworth.  

The MOU states that U of O students admitted to the Arkansas Tech master of arts in TESOL program will have the opportunity to complete the 30 graduate credits required for the degree in one calendar year. 

WASHINGTON — The U.S. economy expanded at a sluggish pace this spring as businesses sharply reduced their stockpiles of goods and spent less on new buildings and equipment.

The Commerce Department says gross domestic product, the broadest measure of the economy, increased at an annual rate of 1.1 percent in the April-June quarter. That is slightly below its previous estimate last month of 1.2 percent growth.

Consumers offset the corporate cutbacks by spending at the fastest pace in six quarters. That suggests steady job growth and modest pay gains are fueling healthy demand that could spur faster growth in the second half of this year.

The economy has expanded at a lackluster 1 percent annual pace in the first half of this year, a reminder of the current recovery's weakness.

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

LITTLE ROCK - Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge's office is asking a federal appeals court to allow the state to enforce its restrictions on the abortion pill, saying the law protects the integrity of the medical profession.

Rutledge's office filed a brief with 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Thursday in its appeal of a federal judge's ruling temporarily blocking the restrictions. U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker in March granted Planned Parenthood's request for a preliminary injunction blocking the law that requires doctors providing the abortion pill to maintain a contract with another physician with admitting privileges at a hospital who agrees to handle any complications.

Baker's ruling expressed skepticism about the benefit of the restrictions approved by lawmakers last year. Rutledge's office said the injunction was issued based on "clearly erroneous" findings.

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Caterpillar Inc. confirmed Thursday that it laying off 60 people at its motor grader manufacting plant in North Little Rock.

Arkansas Business news partner THV 11 News reported Thursday that the company it notified 50 full-time Caterpillar employees and 10 agency workers of their terminations.

Penny Wu, a company spokesman, said the move comes as the motor grader manufacturer aims to "align production with demand." The layoffs will take place by Monday.

"Caterpillar understands this decision is difficult for the impacted workers and their families, but these actions are necessary to position the company for long-term success," the company said in a statement.

In April, the company lowered its 2016 sales and earnings outlook amid revenue declines that hurt quarterly profit.

The facility produces eight motor grader models. Production began at the plant in October 2010.

The Arkansas State Highway & Transportation Department announced on Thursday that the Broadway Bridge will close on Sept. 28 for at least six months as contractor Massman Construction Co. of Kansas City, Missouri, installs the new $98.4 million bridge.

The closure will extend from Highway 70 and West Broadway Street in North Little Rock to the intersection with West Markham Street in Little Rock. 

The Highway Department also said the contractor would earn an incentive of $80,000 per day if the new bridge opens earlier than the planned six months, and lose that much per day if the project is delayed.

A map of prescribed alternate routes is available here. Although several alternate routes exist, officials suggest drivers take the Highway 5/Main Street bridge across the river.

The existing bridge was supposed to close in May, but flooding and steel pieces not arriving when expected pushed that date back. 

Once the birdge is closed, demolition of the existing structure will be accomplished in at least three stages and with cutting charges, the Highway Department said. Dates for the "blasting" will be forthcoming.

Johnnie Bryan Hunt, the founder of J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. of Lowell, will be a member of the inaugural class inducted into the Council of Supply Chain Management Professional Hall of Fame.

Hunt will be inducted along with Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, and Malcom McLean, who invented the shipping container.

Hunt founded J.B. Hunt in 1969 with five trucks and seven refrigerated trailers, and the company eventually pioneered the use of intermodal transportation. 

Hunt retired as company president in 1982 but remained chairman of the board until 1995. He died at age 79 on Dec. 7, 2006 from injuries sustained in a fall at his home five days earlier.

His widow, Johnelle Hunt, will accept the award at the council’s global conference in September in Orlando, Florida.

"Mr. Hunt’s induction into the Supply Chain Hall of Fame is an incredible honor and one our company is extremely proud of," said John Roberts, president and CEO of J.B. Hunt. "His innovation and foresight forever changed the industry, setting the stage for a new era of intermodal."

WASHINGTON — Long-term U.S. mortgage rates didn't budge this week, remaining at historically low levels that continue to lure prospective home buyers.

Mortgage giant Freddie Mac said Thursday that the average for the benchmark 30-year fixed-rate mortgage was 3.43 percent, unchanged from last week. The average rate is down from 3.84 percent a year ago, and is close to its all-time low of 3.31 percent in November 2012.

The 15-year fixed mortgage rate stayed at 2.74 percent.

Financial markets are awaiting a speech by Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen Friday at an annual conference of central bankers for clues on a possible interest-rate increase. The Fed is expected to hold off raising rates at its meeting next month, but Yellen's comments may provide a hint on the likelihood of a future increase.

To calculate average mortgage rates, Freddie Mac surveys lenders across the country at the beginning of each week. The average doesn't include extra fees, known as points, which most borrowers must pay to get the lowest rates. One point equals 1 percent of the loan amount.

The average fee for a 30-year mortgage rose to 0.6 point this week from 0.5 point last week. The fee for a 15-year loan was unchanged from last week at 0.5 point.

Rates on adjustable five-year mortgages averaged 2.75 percent, down from 2.76 percent last week. The fee remained at 0.4 point.

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

WASHINGTON — Slightly fewer people filed for U.S. unemployment benefits last week, a sign the American job market remains healthy.

THE NUMBERS: The Labor Department said Thursday that applications for jobless aid slipped by 1,000 to a seasonally adjusted 261,000. The less volatile four-week average dropped by 1,250 to 264,000. Overall, the number of people receiving unemployment checks fell by 30,000 to 2.15 million, down 5 percent from a year earlier.

THE TAKEAWAY: Applications are a proxy for layoffs. They have remained below 300,000 for 77 straight weeks, longest streak since 1970. The current reading is even more impressive because the population has grown considerably since then.

Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, suspects the flooding in Louisiana will put some people out of work and send unemployment claims higher over the next week. Overall, he says, "employers remain fundamentally optimistic over the economic outlook."

KEY DRIVERS: The U.S. unemployment rate is 4.9 percent. Employers added 255,000 jobs in July and 292,000 in June.

Hiring is strong even though the economy has registered lackluster growth since late 2015. The economy expanded at an annual pace of 1.2 percent from April through June after growing just 0.8 percent in the first quarter and 0.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2015.

Solid hiring amid slow growth is worrisome. It shows that the economy is less productive, with more workers needed to produce the same or slightly more output. Productivity, or the amount of output per hour, has dropped 0.4 percent over the past year.

Weak productivity growth could hobble the U.S. economy and keep a lid on pay gains. Greater productivity allows companies to boost workers' pay without raising prices.

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

WASHINGTON — The job market is humming, and so are the U.S. financial markets, with major stock indexes near record highs.

All that would normally trigger a green light for the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates — especially when they're barely above all-time lows. Yet the Fed, still casting a wary eye on the economy, has yet to signal that it will resume raising rates soon.

That signal, though, could come as soon as Friday, when Fed Chair Janet Yellen will address the annual meeting of the world's central bankers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Fed leaders have sometimes used the Jackson Hole event to announce major policy shifts. In 2010, for example, Chairman Ben Bernanke signaled that the Fed was considering a new round of bond purchases to try to help a struggling economy emerge from the wreckage of the Great Recession. The Fed's purchases were intended to shrink long-term loan rates to spur borrowing and spending.

Some economists say they think conditions are ripe for Yellen to alert investors that the central bank may be inclined to act at its next policy meeting, Sept. 20-21 — especially in light of recent remarks from other Fed officials.

Two close Yellen allies — William Dudley, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and Stanley Fischer, the Fed's vice chairman — have suggested in the past week that a strengthening economy will soon warrant a resumption of the rate hikes the Fed began in December. That was when it raised its benchmark lending rate from near zero, where it had been since the depths of the financial crisis in 2008.

"We're edging closer towards the point in time where it'll be appropriate to raise interest rates further," Dudley said in an interview with Fox Business Network.

And in a speech, Fischer offered an upbeat economic view, saying, "We are close to our targets." Fischer added that, apart from volatile energy and food prices, chronically low inflation is now "within hailing distance" of the Fed's 2 percent target.

Sung Won Sohn, an economics professor at California State University, Channel Islands, interpreted the officials' comments to suggest that support is growing among Yellen and others on the Fed's policymaking board for another rate increase as early as next month.

"The probability of a hike at the September meeting has gone up and will go up more after Yellen speaks," Sohn said.

David Jones, chief economist at DMJ Advisors, agreed that the chances of a September rate hike are rising, especially if forthcoming economic data, including next week's jobs report for August, show strength.

But other economists say they think December remains a more likely time for a resumption of rate increases. And some say that if the Fed does decide to act in September, it would need to further prepare investors. According to data from the CME Group, investors foresee only about a 24 percent probability of a rate hike in September and only about a 56 percent chance by December.

Diane Swonk, chief economist at DS Economics, suggested that one reason U.S. stock averages established highs so soon after Britain's June vote to leave the European Union escalated global economic fears is the belief among many that the Fed will leave rates alone until perhaps year's end.

"Investors are not pricing in a Fed tightening," Swonk said. "We still have uncertainty coming from abroad, and there are a lot of land mines out there. I think Yellen will want to keep her options open in her Jackson Hole speech."

Yellen is the lead-off speaker Friday for an annual conference attended by members of the Fed's board of governors in Washington, officials from the Fed's 12 regional banks and monetary leaders from around the world.

The conference's theme is "Designing Resilient Monetary Policy Frameworks for the Future," and Yellen may address whether the global economy has become trapped in a slump of low growth and low inflation and, if so, how central banks might respond.

John Williams, president of the Fed's San Francisco regional bank, has suggested that the Fed might need to consider raising its 2 percent inflation target to provide more leeway for its efforts to accelerate growth.

Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's Analytics, explained the idea this way: "We lost a lot of ground during the Great Recession, so maybe it makes sense to run the economy on the hot side for a while."

Still, Zandi and other analysts say the Fed seems far from making any major policy changes given the time it would take to build a consensus.

Also on the Jackson Hole schedule is a meeting Thursday led by Esther George, head of the Kansas City Fed, with Fed Up, a coalition that's seeking to change how the Fed's regional banks operate and how they choose their top officials.

A new report calls for the regional banks to expand opportunities for representation on their boards of directors beyond officials of commercial banks.

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

LITTLE ROCK - A group opposing efforts to legalize medical marijuana asked Arkansas' highest court to block a legalization measure on the November ballot, saying the proposal misleads voters about its consequences.

Arkansans Against Legalized Marijuana asked the state Supreme Court to prevent the secretary of state's office from counting or certifying any votes for the proposed initiated act, which was approved last month for the November ballot.

Aside from calling the proposal misleading, the complaint claims it "omits material information that is essential for a fair understanding of the act."

The proposal, if approved by voters, would allow patients with qualifying medical conditions and a doctor's recommendation to purchase medical marijuana from dispensaries. Patients who don't live close to dispensaries would be allowed to grow their own marijuana under the proposal.

Arkansas voters narrowly rejected a nearly identical medical marijuana proposal by Arkansans for Compassionate Care, the same group behind the proposed act. The Arkansas Supreme Court rejected a similar lawsuit challenging that measure.

"I feel very confident that it will pass the scrutiny of the Supreme Court and will be on the ballot," said Melissa Fults, campaign director for Arkansans for Compassionate Care.

The group suing over the measure includes the state Chamber of Commerce, the Arkansas Farm Bureau and the Family Council Action Committee. Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe, a spokesman for the group, said it is also considering challenging some of the petitions that were submitted for the proposal.

"The general public deserves to have a ballot initiative that accurately describes what the legislation will do and what it's about, and the attorneys didn't feel that was the case, which is why they filed the suit," he said.

Among other arguments, the complaint says the ballot title doesn't explain to voters that the measure would allow dispensaries to sell food and drink that contain marijuana. It also claims the ballot title is incomplete and misleading in regard to the effect the measure will have on employers, landlords, churches and schools.

Bledsoe said the group also hasn't ruled out filing a similar suit if a competing medical marijuana proposal also gets approved for the November ballot Secretary of State Mark Martin's office is reviewing the signatures for the proposed constitutional amendment.

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

The Little Rock Advertising & Promotion Commission's $3.35 million purchase of the Cromwell Building at 101 Spring St. for the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau could be finalized within a month or so, according to Gretchen Hall, the bureau's president and CEO.

"We're moving posthaste," she said. "I think the financial analysis proved to be very positive, and the location is extremely beneficial, for not only our office complex but future development for the destination — being right here in the middle of our convention corridor."

The bureau leases the fourth floor of the building in downtown Little Rock, and will continue to occupy that floor, although it could use more space in the future, Hall said. She said the LRCVB is meeting with its attorneys and real estate broker to "hash out all those details" of the purchase.

Hall confirmed that the LRCVB would have spent about $4.3 million in rent over the next two decades — a conservative estimate based on rates going up only 2 or 3 percent. Flake & Kelley Commercial of Little Rock provided a financial analysis for the Little Rock Advertising & Promotion commission, which approved the purchase Tuesday.

Hall said owning the building could mean an additional $4.88 million in revenue over the next two decades, based on 90 percent of the building being occupied. The building is 100 percent occupied now.

Another $40,000 could be generated by freeing up space at the Statehouse Convention Center where some LRCVB staff resides. Hall said the deal offers an opportunity to move the bureau's sales team and some of its operations team to the Cromwell Building.

"Then we could redevelop, in the convention center, the location they're in right now. We could redevelop that into rentable meeting rooms at that end of the building in the future," she said.

Hall emphasized that there isn't a plan in place yet to renovate the convention center space, which on street level under the ballroom. But she said it's an option the LRCVB will have.

The Cromwell Building is the headquarters of Little Rock firm Cromwell Architects Engineers. Cromwell plans to move next year to a 50,000-SF renovated space at Sixth and Shall streets, east of Interstate 30 and south of Heifer International's headquarters.

Cromwell built the Cromwell Building 40 years ago. At the time, the area needed major redevelopment. The firm has now launched a new redevelopment effort at Sixth and Shall, where it has purchased five tracts. 

The Bank of England offered $3.35 million for the Cromwell Building in July. The LRCVB had a right-of-first refusal clause in its lease that gave it an option to buy.

Hall said the LRCVB's administrative and marketing teams were housed in the Robinson Center, which closed for renovations two years ago. The bureau was aware the design plans did not include enough office space for those teams to move back once Robinson reopens on Nov. 12.

WASHINGTON — US homebuyers pulled back in July, as sales declined amid a shortage of available properties and steadily rising prices.

Sales of existing homes fell 3.2 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.39 million, the National Association of Realtors said Wednesday. The decline marks a reversal from rising demand that pushed sales in June to their highest level since February 2007.

Fewer homes are coming onto the market, putting a cap on the sales growth enjoyed earlier this year thanks in part to a low mortgage rate and brightening job market. Rising demand for homes is a positive. But the dwindling supply of listings has pushed up prices, which suggests a market not yet at full health.

This mismatch between supply and demand creates an environment of limited sales growth and escalating home values.

"Sales are not rising as much as they are capable of, but prices are rising at a faster than sustainable clip," said Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Amherst Pierpont Securities.

The number of listings has tumbled 5.8 percent from a year ago to 2.13 million, meaning that would-be homebuyers are struggling to find attractive properties in their price range and may be delaying their purchases.

Inventories have fallen on an annual basis for the past 14 months, an indication that many homeowners are still recovering financially from the housing bust that triggered the Great Recession almost a decade ago. Without sufficient equity in their current homes, many of these owners would be unable to generate a down payment for another home with the proceeds from a sale.

The decrease in listings has corresponded with home values rising at more than double the pace of average hourly earnings, making many homes less affordable for potential buyers.

The median home sales price was $244,100 in July, up 5.3 percent from a year ago.

Sales last month fell 13.2 percent in the Northeast, with declines in the Midwest and South as well. Purchases rose 2.5 percent in the West in July.

Builders are attempting get more homes on the market. Sales of new homes climbed 12.4 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted rate of 654,000 annual units, the strongest level since October 2007, the Commerce Department said Tuesday.

Yet demand has eclipsed even that surge. Just 4.3 months' supply of new homes is available on the market, down from 5.2 months a year ago.

"Homebuilders continue to thrive on healthy demand while homebuyers remain stifled by anemic inventory," said Ralph McLaughlin, chief economist at Trulia.

One thing that would-be buyers have in their favor, in addition to the improved landscape for jobs, is near record-low mortgage rates.

Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac said the average 30-year fixed-rate mortgage fell to 3.43 percent last week from 3.98 percent a year ago. The average rate has historically been closer to 6 percent.

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

LITTLE ROCK - An Arkansas panel will begin reviewing proposals next month to set up monuments to the Ten Commandments and Satan near the state Capitol, the secretary of state's office announced Tuesday.

Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin scheduled a Sept. 13 meeting of the Capitol Arts and Grounds Commission to discuss the proposals. State lawmakers last year approved a law requiring the state to allow a privately funded Ten Commandments monument on the Capitol Grounds.

It appeared unlikely the commission would make a final decision on the proposals at next month's meeting. A draft agenda includes selecting subcommittees to review the monument plans.

"This is just the first step," said Chris Powell, a spokesman for Martin's office.

The Ten Commandments monument will weigh 6,000 pounds and stand more than 6 feet tall, according to an application filed with Martin's office earlier this month. The American History and Heritage Foundation says it raised more than $25,000 for the granite monument and its installation.

The Satanic Temple has asked the commission to approve its proposed Baphomet statue, which it has asked the state to place next to or directly in front of the Ten Commandments monument.

Martin's office has also set up a hotline for the public to call in with comments about the proposed monuments. The law allowing the Ten Commandments monument requires Martin to consult the commission before approving the design and site for the monument. Unlike the Ten Commandments monument, the state isn't required by law to allow the satanic monument.

Republican Sen. Jason Rapert, who sponsored the Ten Commandments law, said he was encouraged by the date being set for the monument.

"I look forward to seeing further progress," Rapert said.

The Satanic Temple did not immediately return a message left at the number listed for the group on its application.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas has said that allowing the Ten Commandments monument to stand on the Capitol grounds would be unconstitutional. The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled in favor of the ACLU last year, ordering a Ten Commandments monument to be removed from that state's Capitol grounds. Oklahoma voters in November are set to decide whether to change the state's constitution to allow the monument's return.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Texas Ten Commandments display in 2005 while striking down Ten Commandments displays in two Kentucky courthouses.

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

LITTLE ROCK - A central Arkansas city is effectively operating a debtors' prison that imposes hefty fines and jail time for thousands of poor people whose checks bounce and infringes on their constitutional rights by shielding court proceedings from public scrutiny, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The lawsuit accuses the city of Sherwood and Pulaski County of violating the constitutional rights of thousands of residents through the prosecution of hot check cases. The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed the lawsuit on behalf of four people who were jailed because they couldn't pay fines related to bounced checks and a Sherwood resident who is challenging the practice as a misuse of taxpayer funds.

The groups say the practice is part of a nationwide problem of poor defendants being jailed for not paying fines and fees they could never afford, an issue that was highlighted in Ferguson, Missouri after the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man in 2014.

"Through a labyrinthine - and lucrative - system, a single check for $15 returned for insufficient funds can be leveraged into many thousands of dollars in court costs, fines and fees owed to Sherwood and Pulaski County," the groups said in the lawsuit.

Sherwood District Court Judge Milas "Butch" Hale III, who presides over the court and is named as a defendant, denied the allegations.

"We do not run a so called 'debtor's prison' in Sherwood," Hale said in an email. "If a defendant pleads guilty, or is found guilty, of writing a hot check we set up a payment plan. It is only after the third or fourth time that they fail to comply with a court order that we incarcerate."

The plaintiffs in the case include Nikki Petree, a 40-year-old Arkansas woman who has been in jail for more than 25 days because she was unable to pay more than $2,600 in court costs, fines and fees related to a bounced check she wrote in 2011 for $28.93. According to the lawsuit, Petree initially faced $700 in court fines, fees and restitution, but the amount ballooned over the years due to related failure to appear and failure to pay charges.

The lawsuit accuses Sherwood and Pulaski County officials of requiring defendants to waive their right to counsel before entering the courtroom and closing court proceedings to the public and the media. The groups also claim that the hot check court issues an arrest warrant each time a person fails to make a payment, regardless of their ability to pay, and uses each warrant as an opportunity to assess more fines and fees against the individual.

The groups say Sherwood is relying on the hot check fines and fees as a significant revenue source for its operations. The city's receipts from district court fines and forfeitures were estimated to be at least $2.3 million in the 2015 fiscal year, Sherwood's third-highest revenue source after city and county sales taxes, the lawsuit said.

In Missouri, the U.S. Department of Justice chastised the city of Ferguson in a report last year for what it called a profit-driven court system reliant on fines for petty violations. The investigation, prompted by the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black and unarmed, by a white police officer, also found that the city's police department disproportionately targeted black citizens with stops and searches.

The DOJ later filed a lawsuit saying that more than 90,000 summons and citations for municipal violations were issued over a four-year period ending in June 2014, part of an "ongoing and pervasive" misuse of law enforcement to generate revenue in Ferguson.

Pulaski County has sent misdemeanor hot check cases to the Sherwood District Court since the 1970s, according to the lawsuit. The groups in the lawsuit also suggest that the practice is more widespread than just one county.

"Faced with opposition to increased taxes, municipalities have turned to creating a system of debtors' prisons to fuel the demand for increased public revenue from the pockets of their poorest and most vulnerable citizens," the lawsuit said.

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Three defense attorneys last week followed the path of the plaintiffs' attorneys and filed notice that they will appeal Chief U.S. District Court Judge P.K. Holmes III's finding that they abused the court system in their manipulation of a controversial class-action case.

The defense attorneys who are appealing are Lyn P. Pruitt, a member at Mitchell Williams Selig Gates & Woodyard of Little Rock; Wystan Ackerman, a partner at Robinson & Cole LLP of Hartford, Connecticut; and Stephen Edward Goldman, a managing partner at Robinson Cole.

Earlier this month, Holmes found they had abused the judicial process, but he did not sanction them because he said their misconduct did not didn't rise to the level of bad faith.

The question on appeal is whether Holmes made a mistake in concluding that the defense attorneys abused the judicial process. The defense attorneys are being represented by attorney David Matthews of Rogers.

On Aug. 8, 12 plaintiffs' attorneys filed notice that they would appeal Holmes' finding that they abused the court system in the class-action case. Holmes reprimand five of the plaintiffs' attorneys, including John Goodson of Texarkana — the husband of a state Supreme Court justice — because he found that they acted in bad faith in their handling of the case. The other seven attorneys weren't reprimanded because their abuse didn't rise to the level of bad faith.

The case at the root of the controversy was Mark and Katherine Adams v. United Services Automobile Association. The Adams case, which concerned the method used to calculate homeowners' insurance claims, was pending in Holmes' court for 17 months until both sides jointly agreed to dismiss it in June 2015. (Under court rules, the judge did not have to approve the agreed dismissal.)

The case was refiled the next day, with a settlement agreement attached, in Polk County Circuit Court, where the settlement was approved without any questions by Circuit Judge Jerry Ryan.

Holmes, who learned that the case was moved to Ryan's court for settlement from an article in Arkansas Business in December, said the settlement that was negotiated "benefited everyone but the class members" and indicated that he would not have approved it had the case still been in his court.

The attorneys have maintained they didn't do anything wrong in moving the case to state court.

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