It was a contentious week in the General Assembly, with the Legislature overriding a veto for the first time since Governor Hutchinson took office. As you may have read, it was regarding legislation to deprive transgender children of certain health services, even therapies they may already be receiving today. That bill is now law, though we expect a lawsuit seeking to prevent it from taking effect this summer. In another tense legislative hearing this week, a bill to create a hate crimes law in Arkansas failed in committee. There’s a lot to follow in these last weeks of the session, so stay tuned.
Below is an overview of bills that Arkansas Advocates either supports or opposes that were filed or that made progress this week, or that are on next week’s legislative calendar. We are monitoring many more bills, listed and frequently updated on our website. More information on AACF’s overall legislative priorities is here.
Updates on some of the bills AACF supports
Progressed: Sen. Alan Clark’s SB 166 passed the House on Thursday and is now headed to the Governor’s desk for his signature. It would allow individuals who may be connected to a child to attend dependency hearings (including delinquency, family in need of services, and dependent-neglect).
Filed: Sen. Trent Garner filed SB 612 last week. It would allow children 12 or younger to testify in criminal proceedings through video conference technology in order for the child to feel comfortable. Under current law, a child could just testify outside the courtroom through close-circuit TV.
Passed: Rep. Karilyn Brown’s HB 1797 passed the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee on Monday and the full Senate on Tuesday and has been sent to the Governor for his signature. It would allow the Child Welfare Agency Review Board to create and enforce rules that prohibit corporal discipline in any licensed facility.
Democracy and Voting Rights
Progressed: Sen. Clarke Tucker and Rep. Michelle Gray’s SB 217 passed the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs on Monday and will go to the full Senate. This bill would make several changes to the absentee voting process, including allowing plain language to be used in the absentee ballot application and providing a “cure period” for absentee ballots that were marked as provisional. Voters would have the opportunity to submit missing materials or correct materials and verify they voted the ballot that was received by the county clerk.
Family Economic Security
Filed: SB 650, sponsored by Sen. Jonathan Dismang, would raise the asset limit for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamp) benefits to account for inflationary increases. Under current law, most families can’t have more than $2,250 and still be eligible for SNAP benefits, and that amount is only $500 higher than the original limit set in 1977. Most states have eliminated the asset limit altogether. The bill is on the agenda of the Senate Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor on Monday afternoon.
Amended: SB 10, sponsored by Sen. David Wallace, was amended this week. The bill would provide targeted tax relief to working low- and middle-income families. The amendment reduced the amount of the refundable earned income tax credit (EITC) from 10% to 3% of the credit allowed to a taxpayer under the federal EITC. The bill remains with the Senate Committee on Revenue and Taxation.
Passed: HB 1176, sponsored by Reps. Lee Johnson and Aaron Pilkington, passed the House on Monday and was sent to the Governor to be signed into law. It will allow Medicaid to pay for mental health services delivered through telemedicine through the end of 2021 or the end of the public health emergency, whichever is later.
Now Law: SB 410, sponsored by Sen. Missy Irvin and Rep. Michelle Gray, is now Act 530. The new law changes Arkansas’s Medicaid Expansion health insurance coverage in a variety of ways. Currently, all eligible adults in the program are covered by Qualified Health Plans (private insurance that is funded by Medicaid). The new law requires that the state cover some beneficiaries in the traditional Medicaid program, while allowing others to be covered by the private plans. To receive coverage from the private insurance plans, participants will be required to take part in “Health Improvement Initiatives” and “Economic Independent Initiatives.” An Oversight Advisory Panel will be created to monitor the program.
Now Law: HB 1594, sponsored by Rep. DeAnn Vaught and Sen. Lance Eads, is now Act 513. The new law allows immigrants with work permits under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status – commonly referred to as DACA – to obtain teaching licenses in Arkansas.
Passed: The House concurred this week with a Senate amendment to Rep. Megan Godfrey and Sen. Clarke Tucker’s HB 1451. The bill will allow a public school district to adopt a bilingual program or a dual-immersion program approved by the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education. It now goes to the Governor for his signature.
Now Law: HB 1379, sponsored by Rep. Clint Penzo and Sen. Bob Ballinger, is now Act 599. The new law aims to protect the rights of birth mothers during adoption proceedings. Among other things, it will ensure that they can only consent to adoption when the information is translated into their native language.
Progressed: Rep. Penzo and Sen. Bart Hester’s HB 1735 passed the House on Monday and passed the Senate Committee on Public Health, Welfare, and Labor on Wednesday. This bill would broaden the fields in which immigrants are allowed to work in Arkansas. It would allow any professional or occupational licensing entity to issue licenses to immigrants who qualify and have federal work permits. That includes those with DACA status. It’s listed on the calendar for the full Senate on Monday.
Scheduled: SB 501 by Sen. Missy Irvin would expand the prohibition against corporal punishment in public schools to include all special education students with an individual education plan under the federal IDEA law. Current law only prohibits its use against students with the most severe physical or developmental disabilities. It’s set to be heard on Monday, April 12, by the Senate Committee on Education.
Passed: An amended version of Sen. Irvin and Rep. Lee Johnson’s SB 291 passed the House on Tuesday. The bill defines characteristics and strategies for community schools, which include integrated student supports, expanded learning times, active community and family engagement, and collaborative leadership practices. The bill is back in the Senate now to concur in the House amendment before it can be sent to the Governor to be signed into law.
Passed: SB 160, sponsored by Sen. Bart Hester and Rep. DeAnn Vaught, passed the House on Tuesday and has been delivered to the Governor for his signature. The new law will require that, beginning in 2022-23, all public school districts include teaching of the Holocaust and its causes. The curriculum must encourage tolerance of diversity “and reverence for human dignity for all citizens in a pluralistic society.” A previous version would have begun the requirement next school year.
Progressed: Rep. Julie Mayberry’s HB 1826 passed the House Committee on Education on Thursday. This bill would require that each public school district provide a health services program under the direction of a licensed registered nurse, beginning with the 2021-22 school year. It will go to the full House next.
Progressed: SB 140, sponsored by Sen. Jonathan Dismang, passed the Senate on Monday and was sent to the House Committee on Education. This bill would require school district boards of directors to include in student discipline policies the requirement that an administrator or designee request and review information related to adverse childhood experiences that may have impacted the behavior of a public school student before placing that student in an alternative learning environment or levying an exclusionary disciplinary action against the student. It would also require that every public school implement positive behavioral supports.
Passed: Rep. Bruce Cozart’s HB 1614 passed the Senate on Monday and has been sent to the Governor to be signed into law. This new law will set a statewide target average annual teacher salary of $51,822 for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years. It will require the House and Senate Committee on Education to jointly set the statewide target average annual salary for future years as part of the adequacy review process. Districts with an average annual teacher salary below the statewide target average annual salary will receive teacher salary equalization funding equal to $185 multiplied by the average daily membership of the district for the previous year.
Passed: Rep. Cozart and Sen. Irvin’s HB 1677 passed the Senate on Monday and has been sent to the Governor for his signature. It will increase per-student funding amounts for state education foundation funding (from $6,899 to $7,183 for 2021-22 school year and to $7,349 for the 2022-23 school year); alternative learning environments funding (increases from $4,700 to $4,794 for the 2021-22 school year and to $4,890 for 2022-23 school year); English language learners funding (from $345 to $359 for the 2021-22 school year and to $366 for the 2022-23 school year); Enhanced Student Achievement funding (by various amounts depending on the percentage of low-income students); as well as other funding increases.
Failed in Committee: Sen. Jim Hendren and Rep. Fred Love’s SB 3 failed to pass out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. The bill would increase penalties for crimes in which an offender targets a victim because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, religion, homelessness or military services. Arkansas is one of only three states that doesn’t have such a law on the books.
Filed: On Monday, Rep. Jamie Scott and Sen. Joyce Elliott filed HB 1871, which is known as the CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act). It would prohibit employers, schools, colleges and universities from discriminating against individuals based on traits associated or perceived to be associated with race, including an individual’s hair texture. A protective hairstyle, as defined in the bill, would include Afros, braids, locks and twists.
Updates on some of the bills AACF opposes
Democracy and Voting Rights
Progressed: Sen. Kim Hammer’s SB 643 was filed this week and then passed the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs on Thursday. It would move up the deadline to return absentee ballots in person to the Friday before the election, except for an “authorized agent” delivering the ballot of someone who is medically unable to vote at their polling place. It now goes to the full Senate.
Family Economic Security
Amended: Sen. Jonathan Dismang and Rep. Spencer Hawks’ SB 594 was amended this week but is still a stripped-down version of a rental housing habitability standard. It does not include a mandate for necessary safety equipment like carbon monoxide detectors, and it puts too much of the onus on tenants to seek relief from unsafe living conditions.
Now Law: HB 1570, sponsored by Rep. Robin Lundstrum and Sen. Alan Clark, bans gender transition treatment for minors, including hormonal treatment and therapies that are provided now in Arkansas. On Monday, Governor Asa Hutchinson vetoed the bill, citing governmental overreach among his reasons. The Arkansas legislature has the power to override the Governor’s veto with a simple majority in both houses. On Tuesday, both the House of Representatives and the Senate voted to override the Governor’s veto, which means the bill is now law. It is set to go into effect this summer, though opponents have vowed to sue to prevent that.
Now Law: Rep. Justin Gonzales and Sen. Ben Gilmore’s HB 1487 is now Act 559. The new law prevents Arkansans from holding businesses accountable through civil liability claims for COVID-19 cases caused by their business activities or by activities on their premises.
Filed: Sen. Dismang’s SB 630, filed on Monday, creates a new K-12 private school voucher program. Taxpayers would receive a direct state income tax credit for every dollar given to a nonprofit that would give scholarships (private school vouchers) to children whose families make less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The bill allows the contributors to designate every dollar of income tax owed for donations to private schools. The vouchers would provide 80 percent of state foundation funding for elementary and 90 percent for high school students, up to $5,600 to $6,300 per year at current funding levels. It’s scheduled to be heard Monday in the Senate Committee on Education.
Passed: Rep. David Ray and Sen. Jane English’s HB 1446 passed the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday and passed the full Senate on Thursday. It’s on the Governor’s desk for his signature. It expands the list of groups eligible to receive a Succeed Scholarship, used to pay private school K-12 vouchers with funding meant for public schools.
Now Law: Sen. Bob Ballinger and Rep. Mary Bentley’s SB 389 is now Act 552. This new law requires public schools to make available to parents for inspection curricula and other materials related to sex education, sexual orientation, and gender identity. It allows parents to request that their children be excused from participating in classes or activities related to those topics and to not be penalized for grading purposes for their failure to participate in those classes or activities.
Progressed: Rep. Mary Bentley and Sen. Gary Stubblefield’s HB 1749 passed the House Committee on Education on Tuesday and the full House on Thursday. This bill would require that school employees only address students by the name and sex designated on their birth certificates. It’s now assigned to the Senate Committee on Education.
Tax and Budget
Progressed: HB 1546 by Rep. Lanny Fite and Sen. Wallace passed the House Committee on Revenue and Taxation on Thursday. This bill would eliminate a tax on the manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors of soft drinks that could endanger the integrity of the Medicaid Trust Fund. It now moves to the full House for consideration.