SESSION SNAPSHOT: Tough love at the Arkansas Capitol as bills stall, fail in Week 6

Here’s what you need to know from Week 6 of the 94th General Assembly’s 2023 legislative session

By: - February 17, 2023 2:25 pm

The co-sponsors of House Bill 1156, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Jonesboro) and Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville), present their bill to members of the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday at the state Capitol. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

We start our recap of the sixth week of the 2023 Arkansas legislative session wishing you a happy #arlegvalentines.

As for the news, there was a lot of it, but fewer major announcements, hearings and debates than in recent weeks.

Here are some highlights from Week 6:

1) Elections

Lawmakers filed a host of election legislation on Monday, too many to cover here, but a pair of bills went through a Senate committee after a long meeting on Thursday.

The first — Senate Bill 260 — is surprising in that it would do something that voters rejected just over two years ago. Actually, it would go even further than Issue 3 of 2020.

The bill would require canvassers to gather signatures from at least 50 counties — up from the 15-county threshold laid out in Article 5 of the Arkansas Constitution — to get a referendum, initiated act or constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot. It would also increase the number of signatures needed from each county.

The second bill advanced to the full Senate — Senate Bill 258 — outlaws the use of absentee ballot drop boxes in Arkansas. This is a preventative bill because the practice has not been used here.

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2) Transgender rights

The defining issue of the first month-and-a-half of the session has been the Legislature’s consideration of transgender Arkansans’ rights.

Week 6 was no different, starting on Monday with a hearing on Senate Bill 199.

The legislation would create civil liability for a doctor who “performs a gender transition procedure on a minor…if the minor is injured, including without limitation any physical, psychological, emotional, or physiological injury, by the gender transition procedure, related treatment, or the after effects.”

The hearing drew a wave of attention to Arkansas because Sen. Matt McKee (R-Pearcy) asked a transgender pharmacist about her genitalia.

Sen. Matt McKee (R-Pearcy)

The bill had a 30-year statute of limitations when it passed committee, but the statute of limitations has been amended to 15 years. The bill has been referred back to committee for reconsideration.

Later in the week, the school bathroom bill continued to move through the Senate. However, it stalled temporarily on Thursday.

After a technical fix, the bill is expected to be brought back and passed.

Our reporter Tess Vrbin has been all over the issue.

3) Where’s that education bill?

As of this writing, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ education bill has not been filed, and officials are saying it’s expected next week.

The most notable education news this week was the bills that did not pass.

On Tuesday, the House Education Committee rejected House Bill 1204 that would have required private schools receiving state funds to administer an annual statewide assessment test.

The sponsor, Rep. Jim Wooten (R-Beebe), opposes private school vouchers, so the bill has been seen as a shot at part of Sanders’ plan.

The following day, the Senate Education Committee tabled a bill that would’ve increased state per-student funding to raise the minimum wage for school classified staff to $15 an hour.

Senior Reporter Antoinette Grajeda has been closely covering education issues and will report on Sanders’ plan once it’s filed.

4) Bills

Here are few other bills of note that were advanced this week:

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Here are a few newly-filed bills of note:

  • House Bill 1410 would dispense with the state’s requirement that children under 16 obtain permission from the Division of Labor to be employed.
  • House Bill 1420 would regulate emotional support animals.
  • House Bill 1453 would require veterinarians to provide emergency care and examinations without considering owners’ ability to pay.
  • Senate Bill 261 would provide an income tax credit for unborn children.
  • Senate Bill 262 would remove the State Board of Education’s ability to require an administrative consolidation for certain school districts.
  • Senate Bill 270 would criminalize the use of a public bathroom or locker room that aligns with a transgender person’s gender identity if a child is present.
  • Senate Bill 278 would eliminate Arkansas’ Medicaid expansion program.

5) Parting shots

Gov. Sanders announced this week that Arkansas will again ask the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for permission to implement a work requirement on the state’s Medicaid expansion program.

It’s unlikely the Biden administration will look kindly on any work requirement, even though this proposal would look very different from Arkansas’ previous Medicaid work requirement that was struck down by federal judge.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders held a press conference on Wednesday with Human Services Secretary Kristi Putnam (right) to announce the state’s intention to seek a Medicaid expansion work requirement. (Photo by John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Primarily, those who fail to comply with the newly proposed mandate would not lose coverage.

Sanders also announced that the state will sue the Biden EPA over its rejection of the state’s ozone plan. The state plan has wavered in status depending on who controls the White House.

As for next week, we expect to see Sanders’ education plan and possibly have the first committee hearing on the “omnibus” bill.

We’ll be back with a recap at the same time, same place.

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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.

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