- Arkansas legislators managed to keep the special session to only three days and six significant bills.
- First, they gutted Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act.
- Second, they slashed taxes for the rich and handed struggling Arkansans (up to) a measly $150.
- Third, they fixed issues in special education created by the LEARNS Act (issues we warned legislators about, incidentally).
- Fourth, they waded back into pointless culture wars over COVID vaccines.
- Fifth and sixth, they altered school safety laws and sentencing procedures for felonies committed with firearms. These were less significant than the bills above.
Arkansas legislators (and the rest of us) survived a whirlwind special session last week that was full of drama. Most of the chaos swirled around Sarah Sanders’ attempt to gut our FOIA laws to hide things like an $18,000 podium and trips to Eurodisney on Arkansans’ dime, but a lot of other important legislation passed. We’re here to break it all down for you.
While the actual changes to FOIA weren’t as significant as we feared, governmental transparency still took a big hit last week. The final bill made narrow changes to the FOIA but will legally let the Governor hide expenses and travel arrangements in the name of her “security.” Of course, the problem is that none of the changes really affect security since the travel in question has already happened.
Since the bill has passed, more and more documents that would be covered by the new exemptions have come out and show gross misuse of funds by the Governor and her security team.
Sanders is now allowed to hide most of this information in the future, so Arkansans are out of luck if we want to know how she’s spending our tax dollars. What happened to the party of government accountability?
This story isn’t over, and we’ll bring updates once they come.
The second big hit to Arkansans came in the form of tax cuts. The top income and corporate brackets get a 0.3% cut, while anyone making up to $89,600 gets a one-time $150 tax credit.
This might seem minor, but keep in mind this is the third tax cut in the last twelve months. Those cuts add up, and very few of them are helping the poorest Arkansans at all. We aren’t sure Walmart and the one percenters need any more help while working class and rural citizens are struggling.
Even worse, these tax cuts will be paid for by the reduction of funding to essential state agencies and services. The state could use those funds to pay for better health care, improve infrastructure, or protect the Natural State environment, but instead, it’s giving handouts to the wealthiest Arkansans.
LEARNS Special Education
LEARNS smashed through the legislature so quickly that there wasn’t any time to fully predict all the changes the bill would make. One change we did predict? Funding for special needs students would be drastically reduced.
Sen. Breanne Davis spearheaded the effort to clean up the legislature’s shoddy work. We’re grateful for her efforts, but it’s yet another problem created by LEARNS that could have been avoided if the legislature had resisted the Governor’s bullying and slowed down.
We provided an extensive breakdown of the issues earlier this year. To summarize, because non-religious schools were excluded from some of the scholarships intended to help pay for tuition increases, parents would be left with nearly double the bill they’d had in previous years if they wanted their children to have the educational support and necessary specialized care their kids needed.
The special session bill helps alleviate this problem, but we want to say again that this could have been avoided. Sarah Sanders has again used Arkansas as a stomping stone to bigger things and left the most vulnerable Arkansans holding the bag. LEARNS has still kneecapped special education over the protests of educational experts and citizens.
COVID Vaccines, Redux
COVID took up a lot of energy in the 2021 regular session. The pandemic was barely a year old and there was a lot about the virus we still didn’t know. Conspiracy theorist and legislator Mary Bentley took advantage of this uncertainty and often led the charge against mask and vaccine mandates.
With cases predictably beginning to rise as the colder months approach, the Governor decided to wade back into the culture war over COVID mitigation. The bill is similar to a bill passed in 2021 that sunsetted last month, but this one doesn’t include a similar sunset clause. It prevents government entities from requiring vaccines as a condition of employment.
We’ve seen this before, but it’s still infuriating to see medical advice so casually ignored.
All in all, it wasn’t a great special session. Our right to executive transparency was slashed, problems that should never have occurred took tax dollars to fix, the rich got yet another tax cut, and the state still thinks COVID isn’t worth worrying about. We can do better.
We’ll have to work for it.