SESSION SNAPSHOT: The Arkansas Legislature takes a break
Here’s what you need to know from Week 10 of the 94th General Assembly’s 2023 legislative session
Rep. Wayne Long (R-Bradford) explains House Bill 1468, a proposed ban on using transgender individuals’ pronouns in schools, to the House Education Committee on March 14, 2023. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)
The Arkansas House and Senate adjourned on Thursday for a week off, and the Spring Break probably comes at a good time.
Each legislative session hits a point — meetings go longer and patience grows shorter.
This week, there seemed to be an uptick in bills failing on the floor of both the House and Senate. Legislative Republicans, who have mostly moved in lockstep, diverged — sometimes bitterly — on several issues.
On the other hand, the General Assembly is set to end the business portion of the session on April 7. That means lawmakers have just two weeks to push through a number of stated priorities: a yet-to-be-introduced public safety package, tax cuts, the state budget and deciding what constitutional amendments to refer to the 2024 ballot.
Not to mention the many other priorities that individual lawmakers may have.
House Speaker Matthew Shepherd has maintained throughout the session that an April 7 conclusion is within reach. On Thursday, he said that he still believed lawmakers could finish by then, but he was less definitive.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has also said that she’s less concerned with getting done by April 7 than she is with ensuring all priorities are addressed.
It’s certain to be a busy few weeks once lawmakers return March 27. Committee meetings will start to go longer and hear more bills; some will meet in the mornings and afternoons.
Shepherd even told House members that they may need to convene on Fridays — something they’ve tried to avoid. That news was met with groans.
Here are the high notes from Week 10 of the Arkansas General Assembly’s 2023 session:
1) ‘We are in a culture war’
With Sanders’ education package out of the way and other major priorities still being worked out, this week’s legislative action was devoid of any major pieces of legislation, but the parade of bills on controversial social matters continued their march through the halls of the Arkansas Capitol.
Sanders signed a law Monday that LGBTQ rights advocates have said will have a chilling effect on health care for transgender children in Arkansas.
Senate Bill 199, now Act 274, opens the door for medical malpractice lawsuits against doctors who provide gender-affirming care to transgender minors, including puberty blockers and certain surgeries.
Additionally, Sanders plans to sign a bill that would restrict students’ use of multiple-occupancy bathrooms, locker rooms and sleeping arrangements on overnight trips based on their gender assigned at birth. The Senate passed House Bill 1156 on Monday, and the House passed it Wednesday.
Later on Wednesday, the House approved a bill that would open the door to criminal liability for the distribution of “obscene” content by school and public libraries. Local elected officials would have the final say in whether challenged material would be kept on library shelves or subject to “relocation” where minors cannot access it.
A handful of House Republicans joined Democrats in voting against Senate Bill 81, which heads back to the Senate after being amended.
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Rep. DeAnn Vaught (R-Horatio) gave a lengthy speech against the bill on the House floor, calling it “government overreach” and proof that legislative Republicans “might have lost [their] way down here somewhat.”
The Legislature’s consideration of “culture war” bills shows no signs of slowing down after Spring Break.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear Senate Bill 81 for the second time, while the House Judiciary Committee has set aside a special order of business March 28 to hear a bill pertaining to transgender adults’ bathroom use. The full House will take up a proposed ban on using transgender individuals’ pronouns in schools.
The Arkansas Senate, in somewhat of a surprise, approved a proposal to raise Arkansas’ asset limit for beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps.
Similar proposals have split Republicans in the past, and this bill was no different.
It would raise the asset limit from the current $2,250 to $6,000, though sponsor Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy) said he thought even $6,000 was still too low. Asset limits do not include income, which is a different measure of eligibility.
Low asset limits, Dismang argued to fellow senators, discourage those in the program from accumulating savings — a key to lifting oneself out of poverty.
The proposal will face a tough road in the Arkansas House of Representatives, especially with Gov. Sanders coming out against it.
“We oppose expanding welfare and trapping more people in lifetime dependency that is paid for by the labor of hardworking taxpayers,” a Sanders spokeswoman told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
This was Sunshine Week, a time to celebrate government transparency, public records and open meetings.
Fittingly, the state Legislature took up a number of bills that would tweak the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act — some were celebrated by transparency advocates, another was opposed.
Advocate Editor Sonny Albarado began the week celebrating three of those bills in a column. Two failed in committee and another failed on the Senate floor.
A fourth bill, opposed by transparency groups, failed in a House committee.
Here are a few other pieces of legislation that saw movement in the Legislature this week:
- Senate Bill 250 — The Arkansas House gave final legislative approval to a bill to regulate counties that chose to use hand-marked and counted paper ballots for elections.
- Senate Bill 197 — A House committee heard a lengthy debate on the bill to deregulate short-term rental properties, but it won’t vote on the measure, which is being amended, until after Spring Break.
- House Bill 1559 — The House Education committee on Thursday advanced a proposal to prohibit public schools and state-supported higher education institutions from requiring employees to participate in implicit bias training.
Here are a few bills of note that were filed this week:
- Senate Bill 426 would extend maternity leave for state employees from four to 12 weeks and expand eligibility to include foster and adoptive mothers for children less than a year old.
- House Bill 1628 would prohibit non-compete clauses in Arkansas.
- House Bill 1625 would create an Arkansas driver’s license with a firearms designation, allowing holders to avoid federal background checks at the point of purchase for firearms sales.
- House Bill 1649 would allow high school athletes who have been admitted or signed a letter of intent to enroll at an Arkansas college to make money off their name, image or likeness.
- House Bill 1650 proposes regulations on the sale and resale of event tickets in Arkansas.
- House Bill 1661 would repeal the sales tax on groceries.
- House Bill 1670 would add an exemption for incest to Arkansas’ abortion ban.
5) Parting shots
State education officials this week took the first steps this week to start implementing the LEARNS Act. At the same time, some school officials have started expressing concerns about the amount of state funding that will be available for teachers’ salaries.
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Shepherd, the House speaker, said the public safety package could be introduced during Spring Break.
He said negotiations are ongoing about what taxes the Legislature could cut, but discussions have focused on further reductions to the top income tax rate.
Oh, and the multi-billion-dollar state budget must still be sorted out.
There will be no Snapshot next week with the Legislature being on break. It will return on March 31.
NOTE: A previous version of this story included a hyperlink to story by another news outlet about funding issues in the Bryant School District related to the implementation of the LEARNS Act. That link was removed after the news outlet issued a correction to its story.
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