Arkansas Advocates 2021 Legislative Session Recap, Vol. 16

Arkansas lawmakers are headed home today for a few months, taking a long recess in one of the most difficult sessions in recent memory. We want to thank you for staying engaged for more than three months. No matter if the legislation went the way that you or we had hoped, speaking up for the children of Arkansas is always valuable and powerful.

We’ll highlight the good with the bad in our upcoming Kids at the Capitol publication and at the Arkansas Kids Count Coalition’s Children’s Policy Summit on Wednesday, May 19th. You can learn more about that event and register for it here.

It was a challenging session on many levels, from the necessary pandemic limits on in-person interaction to the open hostility between lawmakers, and of course for many of the legislative outcomes. We were disappointed that the needs of Arkansas’s most vulnerable children and families were rarely addressed.

We failed to see the adoption of research-proven policies that would have been beneficial to children and families across Arkansas, including school discipline reform, financial relief for low-income families, real hate crimes legislation, better access to health care coverage for mothers and children, and more effective policies to reduce hunger. Like many of you, we were on the defensive for much of the session with seemingly endless legislation to limit voting rights and to threaten the well-being of transgender children and people of color.

And yet there were highlights, including better job and educational opportunities for immigrants, the continuation of Medicaid coverage for hundreds of thousands of low-income adults, teacher raises, increases in overall education funding, and more.

Meanwhile, the session is not over. Later this year, the Legislature will reconvene to consider additional tax cuts for high-income Arkansans and redistricting, which will impact your political representation for the next decade. In addition, public officials at the state and local levels will be making many important decisions in the months ahead about how to spend billions of dollars allocated to Arkansas under the American Rescue Plan.

So, please stay tuned and stay involved! Meanwhile, here are some updates from this short week’s legislative action. We monitored many more bills this session, which are updated on our website here, and we’ll put together a more comprehensive list in a few weeks.

Updates on some of the bills AACF supports

Child Welfare

Passed: Sen. Trent Garner’s SB 612 passed the House on Monday and now heads to the Governor’s desk for his signature. 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.

Family Economic Security

Filed and Recommended for Interim Study: Sen. Clarke Tucker and Rep. Tippi McCullough filed SB 713 on Monday. It would commit the state to addressing the gender inequality in pay by, among other things, requiring equal pay for state employees. They withdrew it from consideration on Tuesday, and the Senate Committee on Health, Welfare and Labor recommended it for study during the interim.

Health Care

Now Law: SB 55 is now Act 843. Sponsored by the Joint Budget Committee, it is the appropriations bill to fund the state Medicaid program.

Immigrant Families

Passed: The amended version of Rep. Clint Penzo and Sen. Bob Ballinger’s HB 1554 passed the House on Tuesday, concurring in Senate amendments. 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’s now headed to the Governor for his signature.

Juvenile Justice

Interim Study: Sen. Alan Clark withdrew his SB 455 consideration  on Tuesday, and the Senate Judiciary Committee and recommended it for study during the interim. This bill would have eliminated or reduced many juvenile fines and fees and would have ensured that services are available at no cost to families, including attorneys’ fees and educational opportunities while in state custody.

K-12 Education

Passed: Rep. Jimmy Gazaway’s HB 1610 passed the Senate on Monday and is headed to the Governor’s desk. It 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.

Passed: Rep. Julie Mayberry’s HB 1826 passed the Senate on Monday. 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’s headed to the Governor’s desk for his signature.

Interim Study: SB 314 by Sen. Joyce Elliott and Rep. Andrew Collins was withdrawn on Tuesday and recommended by the Senate Education Committee for study during the interim. It would have a required public school district be returned to full local control if the district has been under the authority of the state board for five years and has elected a public school board. The biggest and most immediate impact of this legislation would have been to return the Little Rock School District to full local control.

Race Equity

Filed and Recommended for Interim Study: Sen. Clarke Tucker and Rep. Fred Love filed SB 715 on Monday. It would change the designation of stars in the Arkansas flag, removing the Confederate States of America as the symbol for one of the three stars, among other changes. The sponsors withdrew the bill on Tuesday, and the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs recommended it for interim study.

Updates on some of the bills AACF opposes

Democracy and Voting Rights

Failed: Sen. Kim Hammer and Rep. Justin Gonzales’s SB 485 failed to pass the House on Tuesday after a dramatic few legislative days. This bill, which would have outlawed early voting on the Monday before Election Day, failed in the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs before being recommended by the committee later that day. Then on Tuesday, it failed on the House floor.

K-12 Education

Now Law: Sen. Jonathan Dismang and Rep. Ken Bragg’s SB 680 is now Act 904 after the Governor signed into law on Monday. It creates 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.

Failed: Rep. Mark Lowery’s HB 1761 failed to pass the Senate Education Committee on Monday. As amended, this bill would have prohibited 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 would have called for public school parents or guardians to be advised of these policies.

Tax and Budget

Withdrawn: Sen. Cecile Bledsoe and Rep. Joshua Bryant on Tuesday withdrew their SB 337, which would have cut tobacco taxes in border cities.

Interim Study: Rep. David Ray and Sen. Ben Gilmore’s HB 1902 was withdrawn from consideration on Monday and recommended for interim study by the House Committee on Revenue and Taxation. It would constrain the growth of state spending based on an arbitrary calculation of “disposable” personal income.

Interim Study: Rep. David Ray and Sen. Trent Garner withdrew HB 1864 from consideration on Monday, and the House Revenue and Taxation committee recommended it for study during the interim. This bill would require the state to take money from general revenue to put into a special fund that would be used to finance income tax cuts that would disproportionately help higher-income Arkansans.