The House Education Committee met Wednesday afternoon at the Big Mac Building on the grounds of the state Capitol in Little Rock. State Rep. Keith Brooks, center, sponsor of the Arkansas LEARNS bill, smiles following passage of the bill out of committee. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ first legislative priority took the next big step toward becoming law this week.
The sprawling, divisive education bill moved through the Arkansas House of Representatives, passing on the House floor Thursday by a vote of 78-21.
There is great passion on both sides of the debate, which has really become about whether state funds should go toward private school tuition. Nearly 100 members of the public signed up to testify on the bill during a 10-hour committee hearing on Tuesday, with dozens speaking on both sides of the issue.
Credit to House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Brian Evans (R-Cabot) for ensuring all who wished to be heard were and the committee members who remained attentive throughout the marathon hearing.
Here are the greatest hits from Week 8 of the Arkansas Legislature’s 2023 session:
1) LEARNS Act
After House sponsor Keith Brooks (R-Little Rock) filed a six-page amendment late last Friday, the updated 145-page Senate Bill 294 (a.k.a. the LEARNS Act) came before the House Education Committee on Tuesday.
Chairman Evans said he was committed to ensuring everyone — all 94 members of the public who signed up to speak — had the opportunity to testify. The marathon meeting lasted 10 hours, not counting a midday break for the House to convene.
Because the bill was amended in the House, it must again be approved by the Arkansas Senate. Brooks told the Advocate that the legislation will go back to the Senate Education Committee Monday, and if approved, its final hurdle will be the full Senate on Tuesday.
The governor issued a statement saying she has her pen ready to sign the bill into law.
2) Bathroom bill
The law that opponents have said would be one of the most extreme anti-transgender laws in the U.S. hit a roadblock in the Arkansas Senate this week.
Senate Bill 270 would make it a crime if an adult “knowingly exposes his or her sex organs to a minor of the opposite sex” in a public restroom or changing room.
Sponsor Sen. John Payton (R-Wilburn) said the bill isn’t meant to target transgender people, though several opponents testified in committee that it would do just that.
A bipartisan group of senators took issue with some omissions and drafting errors, so Payton decided to amend the bill and return it to committee. However, it’s likely that it will eventually pass.
There have been efforts to enact similar laws in Arkansas, but those efforts have been squashed, once famously at the urging of Republican former Gov. Asa Hutchinson due to the devastating economic impacts of similar legislation in North Carolina that was eventually repealed.
3) Filed bills
Here are a few newly filed bills of note:
- SB 353 would make communications between legislators and legislative staff privileged, meaning not subject to discovery in civil litigation or admissible in legal proceedings.
- HB 1504 would amend the conditions under which a public school district can be consolidated.
- HB 1534 would repeal requirements placed on school districts that have a minority population of 10% or more.
- HB 1537 would create an online voter registration system.
- HB 1547 would define “loaded firearm” for the purpose of the statute concerning possession and use of a weapon.
4) Parting shots
The buzz around the next week of session will again be around the LEARNS Act. The Senate, which already overwhelmingly approved the bill, must concur with the changes made to the bill in the House.
That should only take a couple of days, meaning Sanders could sign the bill by the middle of the week.
With that bill out of the way, the Legislature’s next major focus is likely to be on public safety.
It’s another Sanders priority, and many members of the Legislature also want to pass a handful of public safety measures.
One of the first bills filed was a shell bill that has yet to be finalized, but we should get a look at it in the next week or two. It’s said to include sentencing and parole reforms, expansion of specialty courts and more.
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