The 94th General Assembly has officially adjourned. Take a deep breath and let yourself feel some relief.
As we’ve combed through the last 13 weeks of legislation, here is the takeaway: our new governor and the 2023 General Assembly squandered their chance to help regular Arkansans.
By focusing on performative, extremist policy that doesn’t actually solve problems and by killing good bills that would have helped hardworking Arkansans get ahead, the supermajority chose political points over fixing our state. In this recap, we look at what Arleg prioritized: government overreach, marginalizing groups, owning the libs, and punishing public schools.
Watch, listen, or read on for the details in part I of this session’s summary.
Performative, extremist policy dominates
For three straight months, the supermajority’s effort to “own the liberals” has been undeniable. Governor Sanders too wasted no time punishing “wokeness” by banning CRT and the term “Latinx” via executive orders. The orders, along with the shallow legislation meant to punish liberals for being — well, liberal — signaled to extremist Republicans outside of Arkansas that Sanders and her legislature would not tolerate any progressive policy, messaging, or programming, even if it helps Arkansans.
For Arleg, the anti-woke legislation included bills (now laws) like divesting state retirement accounts from big financial institutions and preferential treatment for investors that prioritize support of gun manufacturers. Additionally, members ran “religious freedom” bills similar to the legislatively referred ballot initiative from 2022 that voters handily voted down. These bills sought to give individuals, groups, and businesses a cause of action to sue the state for “burdening” religious beliefs, even if those beliefs cause discrimination for other groups or individuals.
Perhaps the culmination of punishing the left was SB71, Sen. Dan Sullivan’s bill that would have criminalized state-sponsored Affirmative Action. The bill experienced a roller coaster of near-deaths and revivals up until the last minute when the House chamber voted against the bill and moved to clincher it — a parliamentary procedure effectively killing the bill’s chance of resurfacing.
National anti-LGBTQ legislation in Arleg
Like many Arkansans, we’re grateful the House squashed SB71, as it would have erased critical economic and academic opportunities for women, minorities, veterans, and people with disabilities. But other legislation meant to virtual-signal to the extreme right did pass and will have devastating consequences for some of the most marginalized Arkansans. The national push for anti-LGBTQ legislation again dominated Arkansas’s most hateful bills, which specifically targeted trans people and trans youth.
Our new anti-trans laws include policies like strict liability for medical practitioners who provide kids gender-affirming healthcare. Last session members passed a law that banned these procedures outright, but the law is tied up in court under the argument that it violates trans Arkansans’ constitutional rights.
2023 members took a creative yet cruel approach to end this kind of care: run legislation under the guise of helping trans people by creating strict liability for these procedures. If patients decide gender-affirming healthcare caused harm, they can sue providers. The strict liability for gender care turns medical malpractice law on its head. The bill is meant to end trans-affirming healthcare for youth because doctors would not be able to obtain medical malpractice insurance for these procedures.
The work-around means trans kids won’t be able to get the healthcare they need no matter the result of the earlier law banning the procedures altogether. And let’s not forget the drag bill and the anti-trans bathroom bills, each of which passed. The new laws affect kids in public schools and trans people who want to use public restrooms (though the latter was amended to only target bad actors as was the drag bill, thankfully).
Another example of “owning the libs” is the yet-to-be-constructed Capitol monument in memory of aborted fetuses. Unquestionably, the monument is meant to shame those who have sought abortion care. It also allows anti-abortion lawmakers the chance to gloat. We’re in a red state in a post-Roe United States, and the supermajority does not want Arkansas to forget that.
New Arleg target: Public Schools
LGBTQ folks weren’t the supermajority’s only object of hostility; public schools were next, which was a surprise for those less accustomed to the Arleg methodology. Members targeted public schools in the past but it was neither as organized an effort nor as important a priority as it was this session.
Enter the LEARNS Act: Governor Sanders’ signature piece of legislation aimed at advancing her reputation among Freedom Caucus politicos. Disguised as a parental empowerment bill, LEARNS endangers public school funding, teacher retention, and Arkansans’ constitutionally guaranteed access to public education. Sanders and the bill’s sponsor forced through LEARNS in a secretive and sloppy manner. Then they attacked public school administrators for critiquing the bill and forced legislators to vote for it despite reasonable concerns over the legislation’s merits.
And tucked alongside LEARNS are new laws that further mess with public schools and employees. One bill restructures education co-ops — regional public school associations where administrators and teachers share best practices and educational services. Another new law prohibits teachers from deducting union dues from paychecks, which is standard practice for public employees like police and firefighters. The blatant, targeted attacks on public school employees have never been more apparent or egregious.
Big lobby, big government, big overreach
In her inaugural address to lawmakers, Gov. Sanders said she would not sign legislation members passed if it expanded government at the expense of personal freedom. The line proved superficial; almost immediately legislators filed bills that did the exact thing Sanders said she was against, and unsurprisingly, she has signed these bills into law.
The LEARNS Act is a prime example of government expansion in deference to special interests. The school choice lobby, for which the Reform Alliance runs point guard, was the special interest behind passing LEARNS. Those in the school choice industry are paid handsomely, and the creation of universal vouchers in Arkansas means private and charter school business stand to make millions, as do voucher account vendors, from taxpayer dollars.
Moreover, Arleg and Sanders made national headlines for repealing child labor laws. In an extraordinary move disguised as parental empowerment, state leaders cleared a path for industries to hire kids as young as 13 without work permits, risking exploitation of children — all because big industry is experiencing labor shortages.
In the final days of session, Arleg and Sanders unveiled more “child protection” legislation, this time regarding big tech. Once again, the laws are meant to signal to the national extreme right that Sanders, like her former boss, wants to take down large, liberal tech companies. Arkansas’s new tech laws will require those opening new social media accounts — including children — to provide the state personal information in the form of a digital ID. Sanders & co attempted to persuade Arkansans that the laws protect us from big tech’s bad intentions. The laws pose a security risk to users instead; a state database of residents’ personal information could be hacked or misused by government bad actors.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention how the legislature punished poor people with work requirements for public housing and the gutting of a good SNAP asset bill. They also spent a lot of time on nonsense election bills just to increase Arkansas’s score with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that produces copy-and-paste legislation for red states across the country. Oh, and that big tax cut bill? It’s probably not meant for you.
Tough on crime or tough nut to crack?
The governor’s last major bait and switch was rolling out a criminal justice bill. Though not as lengthy as LEARNS, the policy proposal was dense and focused on tougher sentencing for those who commit violent crimes and a major overhaul in our parole system. Sanders held a press conference where she said Arkansas is tough but fair and where Attorney General Tim Griffin spoke at length about lawless dirt bike bandits and the need for more and more prisons.
The long and short of it is that Arkansas does have a crime problem, which has yet to be solved despite being a state that locks people up — and keeps them locked up for longer — than nearly all other states. As we said last week, building more prisons and keeping people in them for longer doesn’t solve for crime.
In essence, the governor, the AG’s office, and the supermajority determined it would be simpler — from both a policy and a messaging sell to the public — to spend a very large amount of money on only one lever to address crime. The result will be more prison beds, a hefty taxpayer bill, and a crime rates that stay the same.
What’s coming in part II
See how Arleg and Governor Sanders missed the mark? With a big purse and a lot of power, they could have made policy changes to substantially improve the lives of Arkansans. Instead, they focused on culture war tropes, political posturing, and big government expansion; it’s quite the shame.
There are some good policies that have passed, and we’ll tell you about them in part II, along with good bills members killed (again with the political posturing and spite) or ignored all together.
So go take a nap or a walk outside, stop thinking about our state government for a second, then come back in a few days ready to hear about and become part of the solution for making our state better.