SESSION SNAPSHOT: Culture wars and the first bills of the Arkansas legislative session

Arkansas’ 94th General Assembly kicked it into high gear during Week 2 of session

By: and - January 20, 2023 4:00 pm
Drag performer Athena Sinclair speaks to journalists after speaking against SB43 during a senate committee hearing Thursday morning, Jan. 19, 2023. Senate Bill SB43 would define "a drag performance" as an adult-oriented business. The bill passed through committee with a recommendation for approval by the full Senate. (Photo by John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate/01/19/2023)

Drag performer Athena Sinclair, aka M.D. Hunter, speaks to reporters after testifying against Senate Bill 43 during a committee hearing Jan. 19, 2023. SB43 would define “a drag performance” as an adult-oriented business. (Photo by John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Week two of the Arkansas General Assembly has come to an end, and it feels like the session is now actually underway.

Thursday had it all: a tense committee hearing on a divisive social issue, a school choice rally, a rally in support of drag performers and action on dozens of bills destined to become state laws.

1) Culture wars 

The Senate Committee on City, County and Local Affairs passed Senate Bill 43 by Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch) to classify drag performances as adult-oriented businesses.

The committee unanimously passed the controversial measure after a number of witnesses spoke, most of them in opposition.

Rally-goers express their opposition to Senate Bill 43. The bill would define “a drag performance” as an adult-oriented business. (Photo by John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

The hearing was followed by a rally organized by opponents of the bill who fear it will harm not only drag performers, particularly those in the LGBTQ community, but transgender people as well.

Next week, the bill will go before the full Senate, where it will likely enjoy widespread support from the Republican supermajority. Then, it’s over to the House.

A bathroom bill, anti-abortion bill and other measures on controversial social issues continued to be introduced. More on that later.

2) Executive Order

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued eight executive orders during her first week in office.

She continued to use that power this week with an executive order that is intended to simplify how public schools apply for state and federal funding.

As we explained last week, time will tell how much impact these executive orders will have.

3) First bills

The House and Senate began voting on bills beyond appropriations this week, though most that were considered on the floor were relatively minor tweaks to state law.

Rep. Stephen Meeks (R-Greenbrier)
Rep. Stephen Meeks (R-Greenbrier)

Perhaps, the most substantive was House Bill 1018 by Rep. Stephen Meeks (R-Greenbrier). It would allow a municipal fire department bomb squad to make arrests and lawfully carry a weapon in certain circumstances.

It passed the House on Wednesday, but not before some debate and heartburn over training requirements and the extent of bomb squad members’ arrest authority. (There are only three municipal bomb squads in Arkansas, so the bill only affects about 20 people, according to Meeks.)

Meeks secured enough votes after promising to amend the bill in the Senate to better define the required training. He also said they were going to work with law enforcement agencies on the arrest authority component, and if they couldn’t come to an agreement, remove that provision altogether. Legislators expressed concern about not amending the bill in the House first.

In the House Thursday, Rep. Howard Beaty, Jr. (R-Crossett) made a motion to recall the bill from the Senate. Meeks spoke against it. He said there was agreement on the amendment from the Senate and recalling it would create a bigger workload on the House and delay it by a week. Beatty said the Senate requests that bills have a Senate sponsor before sending it over. The motion to recall the bill failed.

4) New bills filed

Lawmakers continued to file bills. A few of note:

House Bill 1156 by Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville) would require students to use restrooms based on their birth certificate sex as well as separating students by sex on overnight trips.

Senate Bill 62 by Rep. Ricky Hill (R-Cabot) would prohibit public entities from contracting with companies that boycott the energy, fossil fuel, firearms and ammunition industries.

Senate Bill 71 by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Jonesboro) would prohibit state entities from granting preferential treatment to an individual or group on the basis of race, gender, color, ethnicity or national origin in matters of state employment, public education or state procurement.

House Bill 1174 by Rep. Richard Womack (R-Arkadelphia) would add protections for unborn children by allowing prosecution when a person causes the unborn child’s death, and repealing laws that may allow a person to pressure a pregnant woman to get an abortion.

Senate Bill 81 by Sullivan would amend the law for obscene materials, create an offense for furnishing harmful items to minors and amends the law concerning obscene materials loaned by a library.

5) School choice

Daniel Garza, national president of LIBRE, speaks to attendees during a rally promoting "school choice" in the state Capitol rotunda Thursday morning, Jan. 19, 2023. The rally was sponsored by Americans for Prosperity-Arkansas and the Arkansas chapter of The LIBRE Initiative. LIBRE is a group recently established in Arkansas to support Hispanic families. (Photo by John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate/01/19/2023)
Daniel Garza, national president of The LIBRE Initiative, speaks to attendees during a rally promoting “school choice” in the state Capitol rotunda on Jan. 19, 2023. The rally was sponsored by Americans for Prosperity-Arkansas and the Arkansas chapter of The LIBRE Initiative. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders spoke at a school choice rally on Thursday, saying she expected her education package to be made public in “the coming weeks.”

The sweeping package is expected to include teacher pay, literacy, school choice and a host of other education measures.

Sanders’ initiative looms large over the session, and lawmakers have expressed reluctance to tackle any other major education issues before dealing with the new governor’s proposal.

We’ll end this week’s snapshot the with the same question as last week: Could next week be the week we finally see it?

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Hunter Field
Hunter Field

Hunter Field is a veteran Arkansas journalist whose reporting on the state has carried him from military air strips in northwest Arkansas to soybean fields in the Arkansas delta. Most recently, he was the Democrat-Gazette's projects editor, leading the newspaper's investigative team. A Memphis native, he enjoys smoking barbecue, kayaking and fishing in his free time.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.