It wasn’t our favorite week in the Arkansas Legislature. We’re kind of tired — mostly from the lack of principles, the punching down, and the attacks on Arkansans simply trying to live their lives. But even when things feel really bad, there’s always a bit of hope to be found. Let’s get to it. (Links to podcast and Youtube video below).

Senators muzzle Central High kids and look bad doing it 

When the Senate Education Committee told Central students to shush, the same kids rallied at the Capitol in defense of their rights. These are the same students that walked out of class to protest the LEARNS Act, irking some members and school choice lobbyists. The LEARNS-loving grownups took to social media to scold the students, calling them political pawns of the left.

But the students weren’t quite ready to be quiet; a handful showed up in Senate Education during the final round of the legislative process for LEARNS, where the committee was hoping to be in and out. But Central kids poured into the meeting to speak against the bill and its amendment. 

Sen. Bart Hester sat in to ensure the chair of the committee, Jane English, did what she was instructed: keep them quiet and limit testimony. Undeterred, the high schoolers refused to be bullied and demonstrated political savvy, which seemed to surprise committee members. Days later the same students protested on the Capitol steps in opposition to the bill

These kids are the opposite of political pawns. They showed lawmakers — and Arkansas — that they are driven and committed young activists. Maybe school choice proponents are just mad their pawns don’t hold a candle to these Central High baddies? Anyway, Go Tigers. 

Election bill update

Good bill alert! HB1537 by Rep. Andrew Collins and Sen. Clarke Tucker would create a much-needed online voter registration system in Arkansas. We are one of only 8 states that do not have online voter registration. According to Rep. Collins, this technology has been around since 2002; states have had over two decades to perfect online registration technology, which should bring relief to skeptics worried about the technology being secure. If Louisiana, Missouri, Florida, and Alabama can do it, so can we. We’ll keep you posted on the status of the bill. 

In Senate, eighteen white men vote to criminalize affirmative action

Sen. Dan Sullivan won’t quit on his bill to end state-sponsored affirmative action programs. This week SB71 narrowly passed the Senate by a vote of 18-12. Notably, only white men voted to end the policy that removes access to economic barriers for women, minorities, veterans, and people with disabilities. 

The yay voters agreed with Sullivan’s wonky rhetoric that ending affirmative action is how Arkansas ends discrimination. This doesn’t make sense, which indicates the bill’s intent is not about ending discrimination. Perhaps an increasingly diverse and progressive generation of young people threatens these lawmakers’ power; or maybe these members don’t want anyone else getting dibs on what they feel entitled to. Regardless, it’s telling that every woman and every person of color in the Senate, Republicans included, voted against the bill. It now moves to the House.

Senators overstep on solar, their power play du jour 

Arleg’s solar history is complex but here’s a quick summary: a few years back, Arkansas paved the way for solar to boom in our state. But as the industry grew, big utilities struggled to account for rate shifts and ultimately passed on lost revenue to their customers by upping rates. Instead of allowing the proper entity to correct this, Arleg has taken it upon themselves (again) to look out for the state’s biggest energy companies. SB295 is an attempt to keep a bit more money in big utilities’ pockets. 

What stood out to us was the rhetoric members used in favor of the bill, which would limit what solar users can earn through competing with energy providers. Proponents argued for support of energy system that we depend on, and that non-solar rural folks should not foot the bill for wealthy people who do use solar.

If these arguments sound familiar, it’s because they were the same ones made against school vouchers just last week. The pro-utility legislators supported vouchers in the name of competition, personal freedom, and smashing the status quo. It’s quite the messaging flip-flop. 

So how can lawmakers make such a drastic pendulum swing in values? One could argue principles are not even part of the equation. A U-turn on personal freedom, market competition, and the “status quo” demonstrates lawmakers are not motivated by service or problem solving. Rather, they are beholden to special interests — their ultimate guiding light. Last week their master was the school choice lobby. This week, it’s big utility. 

Under threat: AR separation of powers 

Let’s talk about our governor moving from “playing hardball” to putting political foes in a proverbial headlock. Her office has strong armed public employees and Arleg members; not only is this behavior an unprecedented abuse of power, it’s also a rejection of norms that sets the tone for what’s to come. 

Recall your middle school civics lesson about the importance of governmental checks and balances. The three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial) are meant to serve in a balanced way to keep each branch in check.

This system is by design, ensuring power is not centralized in one branch or individual — namely, the governor. In these great United states, our founding fathers were determined to prevent another monarchy. No kings and queens for America. Our system allows for accountability between the branches and to the people of this state. 

RE: the onslaught of anti-trans legislation 

Spoiler alert, the Arleg obsession with anti-trans legislation is not about protecting kids. Albeit some legislators believe these policies will somehow protect children, the majority that support anti-trans bills are in it for control. It’s a strategy — one organized and implemented at the national level in order to eradicate trans identity in public spaces.

National groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Alliance Defending Freedom have made it their mission to push through anti-LGBTQ laws in Republican-controlled states. Arkansas is making progress on this front; this week alone the General Assembly heard some form of anti-trans legislation every day. And the Senate passed a bill this week that criminalizes trans people using public restrooms when a child is present — equating using the bathroom with sexual indecency. If SB270 passes the legislature, it will be the most extreme anti-trans law in the countrya spot we have already held.

It’s a dark time in our state, especially if you are trans. To those who are on the end of this hateful, cruel legislation, do not give up.

To those who are not being attacked by our lawmakers, get loud and stand up for those whose identity are being threatened. It takes all of us collectively engaging with the legislative process to effect change.

Not sure where to start? Think small: talk with your family, your friends, and your colleagues. Get plugged in with your local government or school board. Pick one issue you care about deeply and get to work. We promise that through this you will find your people, tap into political purpose, and help usher in positive change for our state. 

Keep your head up, Arkansas.