Week three in the legislature has come and gone, and culture war legislation is still a thing. The good news is that members did file and vote on some substantive bills. Watch our video recap or read on for the highlights!

Anti-Drag Bill passes senate floor

Sen. Stubblefield’s anti-drag bill, SB43, easily passed the Senate this week. Senate Democrats spoke against the bill, arguing the mean-spirited bill solved no real problem for Arkansans. Sen. Clarke Tucker’s comments stood out to us. “This bill isn’t about governing,” he said. “It’s about bullying.” Sen. Greg Leding mentioned what a lot of Arkansans are wondering: why is the Senate running a bill that targets trans Arkansans when there are many pressing issues in our state like high rates of child hunger, child mortality, and children who die by firearms? 

Another big argument against the bill is that it’s unconstitutional, or as Sen. Tucker put it, government overreach at the expense of personal freedom. Proponents of the bill, however, stuck to the theme of protecting children and upholding Christian values. If separation of church and state is something you believe in, we caution you in watching the Senate debate on SB43, as the Bible is inextricably woven into the case for SB43. 

SB43 passed the Senate with every Republican voting for it and every Democrat voting against it. The bill now heads to the House committee for City County and Local affairs. 

Homicide Abortion bill tabled

Some good news for the week: the House abortion bill that classifies abortion as murder has been tabled for now. The Family Council, Arkansas’s largest pro-life/anti-abortion group came out against the bill, stating women should not be criminalized for seeking abortions. For AR People agrees! When conservatives and liberals are both against a bill, especially regarding abortion, it demonstrates how harmful and unnecessary a policy is. Perhaps the sponsors of the bill were trying to make their mark in the 94th General Assembly. Regardless of their intentions, the bill is remarkably dangerous and we are pleased to see it set aside. We’ll keep you informed on any changes with the bill’s status.

“School Choice week” invades LR 

As we await the governor’s omnibus education bill, which likely includes voucher expansion, out-of-state lobbyists swarmed the Capitol this week with promises to equalize the playing field for Arkansas students. Their pitch: “fund students, not systems.” The school choice lobby is sophisticated, extremely well-funded, and gunning for education reform in Arkansas. But those that stand to benefit from vouchers and “school choice” aren’t Arkansas students. It’s those who will make the most money off of vouchers. If voucher expansion passes, the policy would harm small or rural school districts where students cannot access private schools.

It’s our view that investing in public education (and teachers!) should not be a partisan issue. Rumor is the governor’s education package is delayed because conservative legislators from rural districts are against voucher expansion, knowing how much it would hurt their district’s schools. This week Rep. Wooten, a Republican from Beebe, filed two education bills in response to voucher expansion. HB1204 and HB1205 would require private schools that accept public funds to 1) provide transportation to any student within 35 miles; 2) accept any student that applies via the voucher program; 3) require private schools that accept public funds to submit annual student assessment tests. 

Right now private schools in Arkansas that accept vouchers do not have these requirements; Rep. Wooten’s bills will be a litmus test for lawmakers. If representatives believe school choice is about equity, they will vote for these bills. If they vote no, it indicates school choice is really about financial gain.

Democrats introduce RAISE Act

On Thursday the Democratic caucus got ahead of the governor’s office and introduced two companion bills addressing teacher and staff salaries. The RAISE Act of 2023 would give $10,000 bonuses to all teachers and increase base teacher pay from $36,000 to $50,000. It would also provide funding to bump starting classified pay from $12/hr to $15/hr. Democrats specified the bills address educator pay only — an intentional distinction from the governor’s yet-to-be-seen omnibus bill where salary increases (likely lower than what Democrats have proposed) will be folded in with voucher expansion. 

Mary Bentley’s “bathroom bill” heard in committee

Rep. Mary Bentley, a legislator in relentless pursuit to purify schools from trans and nonbinary students, introduced HB1156 this week in House Education. Due to some amendments, members did not vote on the bill but did hear testimony for and against it. In addition to the bill’s mean-spirited intent, it’s noteworthy Bentley had members of the Conway School Board testify in favor of the bill. Conway schools are the epicenter of Arkansas’s school culture wars. A vote is expected sometime next week. For more context, we recommend this great write up via the Arkansas Advocate

Tax chat with Bruno Showers of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families

Bruno Showers, policy wunderkind over at Arkansas Advocates for Children and families, talks about tax policy for this session. A biggie will be the elimination of the state income tax, or at a minimum, bills that chip away at it. Working-class and low-income Arkansans definitely need more money in their pockets, but eliminating the state income tax is not the way to do it. Removing the essential funding source for critical programs would be detrimental for so many. Instead, Showers argues, the state should invest more in service programs that help families stay afloat. Check it out:

One great takeaway from our conversation with Showers is this: even if tax legislation feels intimidating, you still deserve a say in how the policy is made. Everyday Arkansans have as much of a right to be at the tax-policy table as anyone else. Sure, there is a learning curve to understanding these policies, but don’t let the technicalities keep you from being engaged. It’s worth learning and worth pursuing, and after all, it’s our money.