We are officially in the “home stretch” of the 93rd General Assembly. The session is expected to wrap up Tuesday, April 27, so bills that haven’t passed in at least one legislative chamber by now are not likely to succeed this term. It was a great relief this week for SB 55 to pass, as it secures authority for spending in our state Medicaid budget, including the Medicaid Expansion program. Hundreds of thousands of Arkansans rely on Medicaid for affordable health care coverage.
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
Now Law: Sen. Alan Clark’s SB 166 is now Act 738. It passed the House Committee on Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative & Military Affairs on Wednesday. This new law allows individuals who may be connected to the child to attend dependency hearings (including delinquency, family in need of services, and dependent-neglect).
Progressed: Sen. Trent Garner’s SB 612 passed the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. 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 testify outside the courtroom only through close-circuit TV. Its next stop will be the full House.
Democracy and Voting Rights
Failed on the Floor: On Thursday, Sen. Clarke Tucker and Rep. Michelle Gray’s SB 701 failed in committee, but was signed out of the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs after being amended, but failed to pass the full Senate. This bill would have made several changes to the absentee voting process, including allowing plain language to be used in the absentee ballot application and extending the deadline to complete the counting of absentee ballots from the closing of the polls on election day to the end of business on the Thursday following the election.
Family Economic Security
Interim Study: SB 650, sponsored by Sen. Jonathan Dismang, was recommended for interim study in the Interim Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor in the Senate. The bill would have raised the asset limit for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps) benefits and account for inflationary increases. Under current law, most families can’t have more than $2,250 and still be eligible for SNAP benefits, and this legislation would have doubled that amount to $4,500. (The limit would have been $7,000 if someone in the family has a disability or is older than 60).
Now Law: SB 55, sponsored by the Joint Budget Committee, is now Act 843. This is the appropriations bill to fund the state Medicaid program. On the fifth try, it passed the House on Tuesday. It has been sent to the Governor for his signature.
Progressed: Rep. Clint Penzo and Sen. Bob Ballinger’s HB 1554 passed the House on Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, and the full Senate on Thursday. The bill establishes an affirmative defense to a prosecution from certain crimes if the accused was a victim of human trafficking. It also expands protections for women coerced into giving their children up for adoption. It now goes back to the House to concur in a Senate amendment.
Now Law: Rep. Clint Penzo and Sen. Bart Hester’s HB 1735 is now Act 746. The new law broadens the fields in which immigrants are allowed to work in Arkansas. It allows any professional or occupational licensing entity to issue licenses to immigrants who qualify and have federal work permits. That includes those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status, also known as DACA.
Failed on the Floor SB 140, sponsored by Sen. Jonathan Dismang, was brought back to the House for reconsideration on Monday, but again failed to pass. A clincher motion was adopted, meaning the bill cannot be reconsidered unless the vote is expunged. This bill would have required public schools to request and review information related to a student’s adverse childhood experiences before placing that student in an alternative learning environment or levying an exclusionary disciplinary action against the student. It would also have required that every public school implement positive behavioral supports.
Now Law: Sen. Irvin and Rep. Lee Johnson’s SB 291 is now Act 744. This new law defines characteristics and strategies for community schools, which include integrated student supports, expanded learning times, active community and family engagement, and collaborative leadership practices.
Progressed: SB 501, sponsored by Sen. Missy Irvin and Rep. DeAnn Vaught, passed the Senate on Tuesday. This bill 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, unless parental consent is obtained. Current law only prohibits its use against students with the most severe physical or developmental disabilities. It is now assigned to the House Education Committee.
Failed on the Floor: Sen. Missy Irvin and Rep. DeAnn Vaught’s SB 502 failed to pass the House on Thursday. This bill would have expanded the current ban against expulsions and out-of-school suspensions for kids in grades K-5 to all students in foster care.
Passed: Rep. David Tollett’s HB 1157 passed the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee on Wednesday and the full Senate on Thursday. The bill increases the state personal income deduction for teachers’ qualified classroom investment expenses from $250 to $500 for each taxpayer, or from $500 to $1,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly, if each spouse is a teacher. It will next go to the Governor for his signature.
Progressed: Rep. Jimmy Gazaway’s HB 1610 passed the Senate Committee on Education on Wednesday. The bill would require that each public school district implement positive behavioral supports for prevention, strategic intervention, and intensive services or crisis management for students at various stages of exhibiting social, emotional, or behavioral problems or crisis; and would place major limits on schools’ use of physical restraints on students and outlines and requires training of school personnel and the adoption of policies concerning the use of physical restraints.
Progressed: Rep. Julie Mayberry’s HB 1826 passed the Senate Committee on Education on Wednesday. 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.
Updates on some of the bills AACF opposes
Democracy and Voting Rights
Scheduled: Sen. Kim Hammer and Rep. Justin Gonzales’ bill, SB 485, after failing to pass the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs three times, was signed out of committee and passed the full Senate on Thursday. This bill would cut early voting short by a day. Currently, early voting ends the Monday before the election. This bill would end early voting the Saturday before the election. It is scheduled to be heard by the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs at 9:30 AM on Monday, April 26.
Passed: Sen. Breanne Davis and Rep. Michelle Gray’s SB 614, having been amended by the House, passed the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs on Wednesday and the full Senate on Thursday. This bill will make it harder for citizen-led ballot measure campaigns to hire paid canvassers to collect signatures for ballot measure petitions. It will go to the Governor for his signature.
Passed: Sen. Kim Hammer and Rep. Jack Ladyman’s SB 643 passed the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs on Monday and the full House on Tuesday. 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 has been delivered to the Governor for his signature.
Passed: Rep. David Ray and Sen. Bart Hester’s HJR 1005 passed the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday and passed the full Senate on Thursday. This resolution proposes to amend the Arkansas Constitution. Currently, for a ballot measure to pass and become law, a majority of voters must vote to approve the measure. If it passes, this amendment will increase the threshold to at least 60 percent of voters. The resolution will be on the 2022 ballot for voters’ consideration.
Family Economic Security
Now Law: SB 295, sponsored by Sen. Scott Flippo and Rep. Robin Lundstrum, is now Act 780. The new law changes many aspects of eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid. It requires that recipients update the state more often on changes in their financial status and would have state agencies and commissions share information more often to determine whether recipients have lottery or gambling winnings, whether they’ve gone to prison, or whether their job circumstances have changed.
Failed on the Floor: Rep. Austin McCollum and Sen. Bart Hester’s HB 1676 failed to pass the House on Tuesday, and the vote was expunged, which means it can be brought up again. This bill would reduce the maximum length of unemployment benefits from 16 weeks to 12 weeks in some circumstances. The amendment changed the implementation date from 2022 to 2023.
Passed: Sen. Trent Garner’s SB 590 passed the House with an amendment on Tuesday, and on Thursday the Senate passed the amended version. This bill will end any government mask-wearing mandates in Arkansas, including those issued by cities and schools, 90 days after the bill becomes law. It would reserve for the legislature the right to enact legislation regarding the mandatory use of face masks and coverings. It would allow mask requirements at private businesses and state-run health facilities, prisons and Division of Youth Services centers. It will go to the Governor for his signature.
Interim Study: Sen. Trent Garner withdrew SB 545 from the Senate Revenue and Tax Committee on Tuesday to be placed on the Senate calendar. On Thursday the Senate referred the bill for interim study. This legislation would levy a new tax to help fund law enforcement agencies that establish a 287(g) program. Those programs allow local agencies to enforce federal immigration laws, and most Arkansas agencies have declined to participate. The tax would be $5 on every electronic money transfer, or 1 percent of the transfer amount, whichever is greater.
Passed: Sen. Jonathan Dismang and Rep. Ken Bragg’s SB 680 passed the House Committee on Revenue and Taxation on Tuesday and the House on Wednesday. It has been sent to the Governor for his signature. This new law will create the Philanthropic Investment in Arkansas Kids Program, a private school voucher for grades K-12. It will create a state income tax credit for 100% off eligible contributions to a scholarship (school voucher) granting organization. The total amount of state income tax credits claimed cannot exceed more than $2 million per calendar year.
Scheduled: Rep. Mark Lowery’s HB 1761 passed the House Committee on Education on Tuesday and the full House on Wednesday. As amended, this bill would prohibit public schools from teaching or providing materials that say that “any race or ethnicity should feel guilt or shame” or that “any race or ethnicity is inherently racist.” It also calls for public school parents or guardians to be advised of these policies. It is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Education Committee at 9:30 AM on Monday, April 26.
Tax and Budget
Interim Study: Sen. Trent Garner’s SB 459 and SB 522 were referred for interim study in the Senate Interim Committee on Revenue and Taxation on Monday. SB 459 would have exempted used cars and vehicles from sales tax entirely. SB 522 would have reduced the state income tax rate to 0%. Either would have a large negative impact on general revenue, straining the state budget.