A note from our team: We are heavy hearted this weekend, like much of the state, as we see the broad destruction Friday afternoon’s tornado caused.
If you are outside of the area of impact and want to help, consider donating directly to The Arkansas Division of Emergency Management’s disaster relief fund. If the tornado has directly impacted you or your family, you are in our thoughts. We are with you. Please check our Twitter feed and Instagram page for resources available to you or anyone you know impacted by the storm.
As always, For AR People will be here to amplify ways in which Arkansans can help rebuild and move forward, together.
After almost 3 months of legislative proceedings, the 94th General Assembly is nearing its end. Everyone is running on an empty tank these days — lawmakers, staffers, and those of us covering the legislative action.
The end of session, known as sine die, is scheduled for April 7th. But this week the Sanders administration announced a large criminal justice package and a tax cut package, both of which have the potential to extend the legislative session by days, even weeks. Additionally, cleanup from Friday’s tornado may also affect the legislature’s April timeline. We will keep you updated as we learn more about a potential wrap to the session.
Let’s get to the week’s highlights. Watch, listen, or read on below.
Bill criminalizing trans people significantly amended before passing committee — it’s good news
After easily passing the Senate, House judiciary committee members took up Sen. Payton’s trans bathroom bill. You’ll recall that if passed, this bill would be some of the most extreme anti-trans legislation in the country. The original bill would criminalize a trans person using a public bathroom if a minor is present, classifying the act of using the restroom as sexual indecency.
Members of Arkansas’s trans community and allies for Trans rights packed the committee on Tuesday, and only two people signed up to speak in favor of the bill. The remaining three pages of public testimony were those speaking in opposition.
Perhaps the most critical public testimony came from the parents of trans children, who begged and pleaded with lawmakers to not criminalize their children’s existence. One father of a trans girl asked lawmakers to consider amending the bill so it would only criminalize sexual behavior towards a minor in a public restroom.
After the marathon of public opposition, Rep. Nicole Clowney asked the bill sponsor to amend the language to reflect what this father suggested: only criminalize criminal behavior. Representative Jimmy Gazaway seconded this request, and Sen. Payton agreed to amend the bill.
The result is a big win for members of the trans community in Arkansas; SB270 no longer targets trans people for simply being trans. The bill moves to the house for a full vote and passed, will go back to the Senate to concur the amendment before it heads to the governor’s desk.
If you want to dive deeper into the push for anti-LGBTQ legislation, we’ve got an explanation for you. It’s part of a nationally coordinated effort to divide Americans, distract from bad policy, and retain control for those in power.
Lawmakers pass bill that guts Voting Rights Act
One bad bill that flew under the radar this week was HB1534, which would remove requirements for minority representation in certain school districts. The bill did not get much public attention but did have strong opposition from some lawmakers who warned of the bill’s broad implications for minority representation at the local level.
House passes bill to divest from “woke” financial institutions
We’ve covered this bill extensively, but its final stop on the House floor came at a particularly harrowing time. The day after a deadly shooting in Little Rock and the same day when 6 people, including three children, were gunned down at an elementary school in Nashville, Rep. Jeff Wardlaw said Arkansas lawmakers must stand up for gun manufacturers.
The context for his senseless statement was that the state must cease business with certain banks to take a political stance in favor of fossil fuel companies and weapons manufacturers. It’s possible Rep. Wardlaw was unaware of the Tennessee shooting at the time of his comments, but that seems highly unlikely. Regardless, Rep. Wardlaw’s comments on behalf of gun manufacturers are sickening.
State retirement accounts for firefighters, police, and teachers should not be weaponized so lawmakers can make political statements. Nor should lawmakers make political statements in favor of gun manufacturers when school children are being gunned down with assault weapons. Can we see the problem with electing leaders intent on inflaming the culture wars, politicizing our livelihoods, and siding with the gun lobby over our kids’ lives?
We must hold them accountable. Here are the names of lawmakers who first voted against the state divestment bill and then changed their vote to yes, siding with gun manufacturers over state employees and the safety of our kids.
Bentley’s FOIA bill passes, would allow government officials to meet in secret
Representative Mary Bentley’s HB1610, a bill she attempted to run during a previous week of the legislature, passed out of the house this week. The bill would define a public quorum as a public meeting when more than ⅓ of members are present. Essentially, it allows public boards and committee members to meet in secret. Right now Arkansas’s FOI law dictates that if two or more members meet to conduct business, the public must be notified and allowed to attend.
The bill had organized pushback, especially from the bipartisan collective known as the Arkansas Transparency in Government group. Though the bill’s sponsor argues that passing the new law will allow leaders to conduct public business in an easier manner, the bill, unfortunately, erases transparency, opens the door for bad actors at the municipal and county levels, and jeopardizes government accountability.
Lawmakers drop criminal justice bill, and there’s much to discuss
On Monday Gov. Sanders held a press conference to unveil the legislature’s criminal justice package, which includes tougher sentencing laws, a new jail, and amending our parole system. But the filed legislation does not include details about building a prison. The governor will need to solicit lawmakers for a new jail via an appropriations request, which will come at a later time, said bill sponsor Sen. Ben Gilmore. The bill is broad and contains some problematic policies, like the 100% time-served requirement for particular crimes and the classification of negligent homicide as a violent crime.
Regarding 100% time served, if a person has no chance of early release or even the slightest reduction of sentence time, there is no incentive for good behavior while incarcerated. A reduction in time served also allows the state to monitor prisoners after release. This provides an opportunity to ensure adjustment and limit repeat offenses. If one serves 100% of a sentence, the state cannot monitor them after release.
Moreover, requiring 100% time served for negligent homicide is something with which prosecutors take issue. A person that commits such a crime would not be able to earn a reduced sentence through good behavior.
Connect the Dots: what reduces crime?
One glaring issue with the bill is that, even if perfectly implemented, it would not drastically cut Arkansas’s violent crime rate. Our state has seen a growth in violent crime despite being a state that locks up more people for longer times than almost all others. The correlation, or lack thereof, between incarcerating more people and reducing violent crime is clear – adding prisons and keeping people in prison for longer doesn’t work. If it did, our state would have lower crime than it does now.
This issue is incredibly complex and requires nuanced policy solutions that often take years, if not decades, to demonstrate change. Consequently, it’s not an issue that can be summed up in a newsletter, a podcast, or even 131 pages of legislation. We are committed, however, to examining the issue as its one that affects Arkansans daily. Stay tuned for how we will take a deeper dive into crime policy and what it means for you.
Constitutional amendments are up; which will lawmakers pick?
This week lawmakers began hearing proposed constitutional amendments in both chambers, which run through the committees for State Agencies and Governmental Affairs. The legislature can refer up to three constitutional amendments to voters for the 2024 general election. Members will continue to hear all proposed amendments before voting on which to refer for a full chamber vote.
Often there are clear front-runners for which constitutional amendments members wish to refer, but this session there is no apparent favorite. As a result, we have our eye on proposed amendments that list many sponsors and co-sponsors, as these are more likely to gain traction. We’ll keep you posted as committee members make their way through the bills.
Is Gov. Sanders gunning for higher education?
This week Governor Sanders unexpectedly fired Maria Markham, the director of the Arkansas Division of Higher Education. From the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette:
‘I got a call from the governor’s office saying they were going in another direction and thanking me for my service, [but] no cause or explanation,’ Markham said. ‘I was not expecting that…’ But when many of those appointments were made with Markham hearing nothing about a change in her status, she expected to remain in her role, at least for the immediate future, Markham said. ‘The timing was a surprise, [especially] in the middle of the legislative session’ — and particularly as Markham’s current ‘top priority’ works its way through the Legislature.
The legislation to which Markham refers is SB248, which would expand higher ed scholarship eligibility to more potential students based on socioeconomic needs. The bill passed both chambers this week and moves to the governor’s desk.
It’s unclear why Sanders would abruptly terminate Markham, especially after Markham helped push through SB248. But some fear the move, on the heels of LEARNS, signals the Sanders administration’s desire to defund higher education. We will keep you posted as we learn more.
- The Senate considered reinstating Alan Clark’s seniority last week; Sen. Stephanie Flowers wasn’t having it. The move failed and Clark is still in the ethics doghouse.
- Legislation that would cut income tax rates for the wealthiest Arkansans will be heard this coming week. Be ready for rhetoric saying it’s good for regular Arkansans when it’s really about helping the rich get richer.
- SB71, the anti-affirmative action Dan Sullivan bill, is back from the dead. It will be heard Monday in House State Agencies. We’ll be there to live-tweet the action.
Have a great week, Arkansas, and be sure to send your light and love to tornado survivors. Central and East Arkansas have a long road of rebuilding ahead.