SESSION SNAPSHOT: Drag queens, snow, masks and education at the Arkansas State Capitol

Here’s what you need to know about Week 3 of the 94th General Assembly

By: - January 27, 2023 4:15 pm

The Arkansas House Education Committee met Thursday morning to consider House Bill 1156 by Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville). The bill would force schools to restrict kids to using restrooms by the sex assigned to them at birth. Dr. David Naylor, Jr., right, a supporter of the bill and a member of the Conway School Board, speaks during the meeting. Bentley, center, and Conway School Board member Linda Hargis look on. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

The third week of Arkansas’ 94th General Assembly began with the Senate’s passage of a bill to restrict drag shows the same as strip clubs and porn shops, and it ended with a long, tense hearing over a school bathroom bill.

Between the culture war battles, the state House and Senate have started passing legislation that gets less attention but will still affect Arkansans in the coming years.

1) Senate Bill 43 – the drag bill

Republicans say it protects children; Democrats argued it targets transgender Arkansans.

A party line split means SB43 cleared the Senate, 28-6, on Tuesday.

The bill classifies a drag performance as an adult business similar to pornography, strip clubs and other sexually explicit content and activities.

The bill is likely to enjoy similar Republican support in the House of Representatives, and it is expected to be heard in the House City, County and Local Affairs Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 1, setting up a vote on the House floor on Thursday, Feb. 2.

Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch)
Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch)

What they said: 

Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch), the sponsor of SB43: “I had one [person] email me and say that I hate drag queens, and that’s a lie. I don’t hate anybody. I do hate sin because that’s the way I was raised. I think that I know what’s wrong in God’s eyes because that’s the way I was raised, and I believe the Bible, but I don’t hate any drag queens.”

Sen. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock): “This bill is not about governing. It’s about bullying, and if you don’t believe me or agree, all you have to do is look at the language in the bill.”

2) More Rescue Plan delays

The distribution of Arkansas’ federal pandemic relief funds has been… convoluted.

An executive order this week from Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders complicated matters further.

The order abolished the American Rescue Plan Steering Committee. The steering committee reviewed funding requests under the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act and approved projects for legislators to consider.

The governor’s order caused confusion about what action, if any, could be taken on ARPA-related items by the Joint Budget Committee’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review subcommittee during its Wednesday meeting.

The committee decided to withdraw funding plans for rural hospitals, domestic violence prevention, and behavioral health and hold requested funding for broadband projects.

Lawmakers indicated that some of the projects will likely be funded in the end, but they wanted to ensure proper dialogue with the governor’s office.

3) Less controversial legislation

Believe it or not, the majority of bills that pass through the Arkansas Legislature are bipartisan and fairly uncontroversial.

Here are a few that made it through one or both chambers this week:

  • Gov. Sanders signed House Bill 1023 into law after it passed both chambers with near-unanimous support. The bill requires American and Arkansas flags purchased with public funds to be made in the U.S.
  • The House passed House Bill 1150 by Rep. Fran Cavenaugh (R-Walnut Ridge). The bill extends the deadline to register vehicles from 30 to 60 days for those buying new vehicles or moving to Arkansas.
  • The House unanimously passed House Bill 1099 by Rep. Andrew Collins (D-Little Rock). The legislation clarifies that individuals involved in public records requests for personnel records have until the close of business on the day after a request is made to ask for an opinion on the request from the Arkansas attorney general.

4) Bills filed

Bills continued to pour in this week, many relating to public retirement systems. Those bills had to be filed by Friday to allow proper time for actuarial review.

Here are some newly filed bills of note:

  • House Bill 1196 by Rep. Kendon Underwood (R-Cave Springs) would implement a work requirement for able-bodied adults who receive public housing assistance.
  • In an apparent preemptive shot at private school vouchers, Rep. Jim Wooten (R-Beebe) filed House Bill 1204 and House Bill 1205. Together, the bills would require private schools to participate in the the same statewide student assessments as public schools. For private schools that intend to accept students whose tuition is covered by public funds, Wooten’s legislation would require them to accept all students who apply and provide transportation to school for students who live within 35 miles.
  • Senate Bill 125 by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Jonesboro) would prohibit colleges and universities from restricting “controversial, uncollegial, disagreeable, or offensive” speech on campus.
  • Senate Bill 134 by Sen. John Payton (R-Wilburn) would exempt used vehicles purchased for less than $10,000 from sales tax.
  • House Bill 1301 by Rep. Nicole Clowney (D-Fayetteville) would add the following exemption to Arkansas’ law outlawing abortion: “in the case of a fetal abnormality incompatible with life.”


The first joint resolutions to refer ballot initiatives to the November 2024 ballot were filed this week. Typically, lawmakers wait until the end of session to negotiate what measures they want to refer to the people for a vote.

The two filed this week were:

  • House Joint Resolution 1001 by Rep. David Ray (R-Maumelle) would do away with the Arkansas Independent Citizens Commission and return the power of setting salaries for elected state officials to the General Assembly.
  • Senate Joint Resolution 1 by Sen. Bryan King (R-Green Forrest) would tweak the process for legislative redistricting, creating an Arkansas Apportionment Commission that would submit redistricting recommendations to the Board of Apportionment, comprising the governor, attorney general and secretary of state.

5) Teacher pay

Legislative Democrats on Thursday filed bills to increase pay for teachers and school staff.

The legislation proposes giving teachers an immediate $10,000 raise and raising the minimum teacher salary in Arkansas from $36,000 a year to $50,000.

Like much of the session, these bills likely won’t receive much consideration until the introduction of an education package from Gov. Sanders and Republicans in the Legislature that is said to include increased teacher pay, school choice measures, literacy improvement components and other proposals.

Even then, the Democrats would need Republican support, which is unlikely.

Arkansas House Speaker Rep. Matthew Shepherd (R-El Dorado)
Arkansas House Speaker Matthew Shepherd

House Speaker Matthew Shepherd (R-El Dorado) said Thursday that he believes “everybody here is in favor of raising teacher pay” even if they disagree on how to implement it.

“It’s really a question of what are the specifics and how do we go about it,” Shepherd said.

He declined to comment on whether he believes the Legislature’s Republican majority will support a $50,000 minimum salary for teachers, saying he had not yet read the bill.

The larger education bill from Sanders and Republicans is still being workshopped before it can be filed since it has “a lot of moving pieces,” Shepherd said.

Sanders at several public appearances has said the package will be made public in the coming weeks.

Come back next week to see if we’ve found out anything more.

Senior Reporter Antoinette Grajeda and Reporter Tess Vrbin contributed to this story.

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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.