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Legislation on Arkansas governor’s desk would reboot $1M pregnancy resource center grant fund

By: - April 6, 2023 4:36 pm
A counselor holds a pregnant woman's hands during a session.

(Getty Images)

Arkansas will offer another $1 million to pregnancy resource centers during fiscal year 2024 if Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders authorizes it.

The state Legislature set aside the same taxpayer-funded amount last year to support “crisis pregnancy centers,” maternity homes, adoption agencies, and “social service agencies that provide material support and other assistance to individuals facing an unintended pregnancy to help those individuals give birth to their unborn children,” according to Act 187 of 2022.

This year’s Senate Bill 286 is nearly identical. It passed the Senate on Monday and the House on Tuesday, both with bipartisan support. The legislation’s title designates it as an appropriations bill for the state Department of Finance and Administration and does not mention crisis pregnancy centers or anything of the sort.

The bill was delivered to Sanders’ desk Thursday morning. Co-sponsor Rep. Lane Jean, R-Magnolia, mentioned the legislation later on the House floor and said he would “fight for” the program to be renewed annually by the Legislature.

Crisis pregnancy centers are often religiously affiliated and discourage clients from ending their pregnancies. Act 187 and Senate Bill 286 specifically prohibit the awarding of grant money to entities that “perform, prescribe, provide referrals for, or encourage abortion” or are affiliated with any entities that do so.

Arkansas law prohibits abortions except to save the life of the mother.

Former Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed Act 187 into law a couple of months before the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2022 ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade. Since then, Republican state leaders have held up pregnancy resource centers as critical after the ruling made abortion almost entirely illegal in Arkansas.

The state Department of Finance and Administration distributed two rounds of funding to a total of 23 facilities throughout the state between September 2022 and January 2023. The organizations received a cumulative total of nearly $942,300, and the remaining $57,700 was distributed among them instead of being returned to the state’s general revenue fund as originally planned.

The new legislation says any unexpended funds after of June 30,2024, shall be returned to the general revenue reserve fund.

Most of the recipients were crisis pregnancy centers. The exceptions were an adoption agency in Little Rock, maternity homes in Springdale and Berryville, and a West Memphis nonprofit that focuses on helping impoverished communities.

Digital advertising was a shared priority among several recipients. Their applications, obtained via an Arkansas Freedom of Information Act request, said they would use the money to target ads toward Arkansans with online activity suggesting they might have an unplanned pregnancy. Three centers —HopePlace Newport, Caring Hearts in Little Rock and North Little Rock, and Arkansas Pregnancy Resource Center in Little Rock — all received funds in September 2022 for Google Ads contracts.

Many centers also hoped to use some of the grants to pay for physical advertising, rent and utilities, baby supplies, parenting classes and more staff, among other things, according to both rounds of applications.

Some pregnancy resource center directors declined or hesitated to apply for the grant out of fear that accepting government money could restrict their religious missions even if the money would help them expand their services.

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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.