Arkansas Senate narrowly passes bill to end state affirmative action programs
Arkansas state Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Jonesboro) defended his bill to end "state-sponsored discrimination" in the Senate on Thursday, March 9, 2023. This shows him testifying on another bill in February.(Photo by Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)
State Sen. Dan Sullivan’s bill to “end state-sponsored discrimination” squeaked through the Senate on Thursday by a single vote.
Senate Bill 71 now goes to the House for consideration. The bill, which passed the Senate 18-12, prohibits state and local government agencies, including schools and universities, from taking into consideration race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in employment, public education and procurement matters. Violating its provisions would be a Class A misdemeanor.
The Jonesboro Republican said his legislation makes everyone equal, “and we’re going to determine what equal means based on your merit, not those other qualities.”
He told fellow senators that the bill doesn’t take any funds away from the specific programs it mentions — the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division, the Equity Assistance Center of the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Arkansas Geographical Critical Needs Minority Teacher Scholarship Program.
“The need will still be there,” he said. “But we will set the standard for what need is.”
He mentioned that he took it as an insult when a witness in a Tuesday committee meeting implied that the bill would make the maternal mortality death rate among Black women climb by eliminating programs aimed at lowering that rate.
“This sets the standard differently: any woman, any child who’s dying. If the numbers support that [Black women die at a disproportionate rate] — and I believe it is — they will still qualify for assistance.”
Sullivan said another claim made in committee — that the bill would force an African American history museum in Little Rock to close — was “just not true.”
He said Attorney General Tim Griffin’s office reviewed the bill’s language and told him it would not affect the Mosaic Templars Cultural Museum.
He also said the attorney general had found “no constitutional infirmities” in the legislation.
“I reject the rhetoric and the attempts to intimidate the sponsors” of SB 71, he said.
Sullivan emphasized that the bill gives state agency heads two years to promulgate rules to comply with its provisions and have them approved by the Arkansas Legislative Council.
“We’re going to hold people accountable,” Sullivan said.
Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) disagreed and said the bill will have “deleterious effects” on minorities as defined in state law. A minority is defined in law as women, ethnic minorities and disabled veterans, she said.
Arkansas doesn’t have an affirmative action program, Chesterfield said. Rather, it has a goal of encouraging participation in education, economic development and state purchasing and contracting by those legally defined groups that have been historically disadvantage by custom and policy.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about SB 71 during a press briefing Thursday and said: “We’re tracking this legislation closely. We’ll see what the final product looks like and weigh in once we have a final piece of legislation as it goes through the House.”
Voting against the measure were Republican Sens. Alan Clark, Lonsdale; Breanne Davis, Russellville; Jonathan Dismang, Searcy; Jane English, North Little Rock; Missy Irvin, Mountain View; and David Wallace, Leachville; and Democratic Sens. Chesterfield; Stephanie Flowers, Pine Bluff; Greg Leding, Fayetteville; Fredrick Love, Mabelvale; Reginald Murdock, Marianna; and Clarke Tucker, Little Rock.
Two senators did not vote, one abstained and two were absent.
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