SESSION SNAPSHOT: Arkansas LEARNS zooms through the Senate in Week 7
Here’s what you need to know from Week 7 of the 94th General Assembly’s 2023 legislative session
Sen. Breanne Davis, lead sponsor of Senate Bill 294, which would enact the governor’s education program, and Education Secretary Jacob Oliva, right, share a laugh before a meeting of the Senate Education Committee in Little Rock on Feb. 22, 2023. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
It felt like the Arkansas Legislature’s 2023 legislative session hit full stride this week.
It was a whirlwind with the introduction and Senate passage of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ sprawling education bill.
There were also long, tense meetings on a range of other bills from paper ballots to solar energy that probably would’ve gotten more attention in any other week.
Next week promises to be a busy one too as the LEARNS Act makes its way to the House where the sponsor has promised to make amendments.
1) Education bill
Introduced Monday. Debated in committee on Wednesday. Passed through the Senate on Thursday.
That’s how fast the 144-page Senate Bill 294, also called the LEARNS Act, moved this week.
The speed that sponsor Sen. Breanne Davis (R-Russellville) moved the legislation after introduction was one of the chief criticisms of opponents of the bill as well as a few supporters.
Davis has pledged to amend the legislation with changes that sound like mostly minor, technical tweaks. That means the bill must go back through the Senate and won’t go to Sanders’ desk until the week of March 6 at the earliest.
The bill is expected to run in House committee on Tuesday, setting up a possible House floor vote on Wednesday. Though, this timeline could vary depending on when the amendments are made.
The bill appears to have the support needed to pass the House, but more opposition is expected on that end of the Capitol than there was in the Senate.
The scope of the bill is truly remarkable. There are many components with near universal support: investments in teacher pay, student literacy, early childhood education, teacher recruitment.
There are also more controversial elements: private school vouchers, the repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, ban on the teaching of critical race theory and “indoctrination.”
2) Let the sunshine in
The Legislature was always going to have to address a wonky, less-sexy portion of Arkansas law this session — solar energy policy.
There are gobs of money on both sides of the debate around net-metering, or how solar users sell excess energy back to the grid.
A compromise was reached Wednesday, though no side came out totally happy. Companion bills passed out of House and Senate committees on Thursday.
The details are… complicated, so I’ll let our correspondent, Wesley Brown, explain here.
3) Culture wars
Through the first month and a half of the session, much of the General Assembly’s focus has been on LGBTQ issues.
With the introduction of the massive education bill early this week, it has become harder to keep up with all those bills and their amendments, but our Tess Vrbin has been all over it.
Here are a few that saw action this week:
- Senate Bill 199 would allow doctors to be sued for medical malpractice for providing gender-affirming care to transgender minors. It passed the Senate on Tuesday and will next be heard by the House Judiciary Committee.
- Senate Bill 43 originally defined drag performances as “adult-oriented” and overtly sexual and would have banned them within a certain distance of places children frequent. It was amended earlier this month to no longer mention the word “drag” and instead restricts performances that feature complete or partial nudity and the exposure of real or prosthetic breasts or genitalia. The bill passed the House on Feb. 6 and passed the Senate on Wednesday. Sanders signed it Friday.
- Senate Bill 81 would allow anyone to challenge library content they consider “obscene” and allow the appeal process to reach local elected officials, who would decide whether to remove the material. Much of the discourse around the bill has been about books about LGBTQ issues or characters. The bill would make deliberate distribution of the material a potential Class D felony. It passed the Senate on Wednesday and will next be heard by the House Judiciary Committee.
Here a few others that could see action next week or in the coming weeks:
- House Bill 1156 would require students’ gender assigned at birth to determine their access to bathrooms, locker rooms and where they stay on overnight school trips. The bill passed the House but was pulled from the Senate floor for an amendment. The Senate Education Committee will hear the bill for the second time, likely next week, and the amended bill will have to return to the House if it passes the Senate.
- Senate Bill 270 would make it a felony for anyone to be in a changing area that does not align with their assigned gender at birth if children are present. The Senate Judiciary Committee has the bill on its Monday agenda.
- House Bill 1468 would prohibit school employees at all levels of education from using the correct pronouns for transgender individuals, not limited to students. The bill was introduced Monday and was pulled from Thursday’s House Education Committee agenda shortly before the meeting.
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New bills continued to be filed this week. Here are a few of note:
- House Bill 1496 would upgrade from a misdemeanor to a felony the offense of intentionally injuring a referee or sports official.
- Senate Bill 307 would create a “monument to the unborn” on the State Capitol grounds.
- Senate Bill 306 would raise Arkansas’ asset limit for qualifying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program, commonly called food stamps, from $2,250 to $12,500.
- House Bill 1465 would exempt disabled veterans and their spouses from state sales tax.
5) Parting shots
Education will again be the big story next week.
House Speaker Matthew Shepherd (R-El Dorado) said he expects the House Education Committee to meet to consider the bill on Tuesday in the Multi-agency Complex, more commonly known as “Big MAC.”
We’ll also keep an eye out for the promised amendment to the bill.
The next major issue coming is public safety, another campaign focus and priority of Gov. Sanders.
Rep. Jimmy Gazaway (R-Paragould) is the House sponsor of a shell bill that was one of the first bills filed when bill filing began last year. He said the bill is coming together, and the full plan could be introduced late next week. However, nothing is certain.
The bill is expected to include sentencing and parole reforms, expansion of specialty courts and more.
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