Arkansas Advocates 2021 Legislative Session Recap, Vol. 5

This week was the deadline to file proposed constitutional amendments. One of the most important decisions the General Assembly makes every session is whether to refer such proposals to the voters, and it’s always a competitive process heavily influenced by some of the most powerful entities in the state. Lawmakers can refer up to three proposed amendments, and then voters will make the final decision on what becomes law in November 2022.

The proposals, filed as joint resolutions, range from abolishing all forms of slavery and indentured servitude to making it harder for citizens to pass an initiated act. Several would increase the power of the legislative branch – for example, allowing lawmakers to call themselves into special session or to set rules for the judicial branch. A few would set limits on lawsuit damages. Talk Business compiled a full list of all the proposed amendments. We’ve included a few of them in our legislative summary below. And you can read the wording for any of them on the legislative website. They’ll be heard in the respective House and Senate committees on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs.

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

Democracy and Voting Rights

Passed: On Monday HB 1202, led by Rep. Andrew Collins and Sen. Breanne Davis, passed the full Senate on and will go to the Governor to be signed into law. This bill will require that sample ballots for each polling site be posted online for voters to review.

Economic Self Sufficiency

New: Sen. Greg Leding and Rep. Jay Richardson filed SJR 11 this week. This resolution proposes a constitutional amendment that would make evictions a civil issue, rather than a criminal one, and would implement basic standards for rental units in Arkansas. Every other state already has these rules. It has been referred to the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs.

Food Security

Scheduled: HB 1009, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, passed the Senate Committee on Education on Monday, and is scheduled to be heard by the House on Monday, Feb. 15. The bill would allow public schools to distribute excess food to students for consumption at home or on campus.

Health Care

Progressed: This week, HB 1176, sponsored by Reps. Lee Johnson and Aaron Pilkington, along with Sen. Breanne Davis, passed the House. It has been referred to the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee. The bill would authorize Arkansas Medicaid to keep the behavioral and mental health services telemedicine changes made during the pandemic and make them permanent. It also would ensure that providers will continue to be paid for providing telemedicine services to people receiving Medicaid.

Immigrant Families

New: Rep. Megan Godfrey and Sen. Clarke Tucker filed HB 1451 this week. This bill would allow a public school district to adopt a bilingual program or a dual-immersion program approved by the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education. Currently, the law only allows educators to communicate with the student in the student’s native language to facilitate the student’s ability to become proficient and learn in the English language. The bill has been assigned to the Senate Education Committee.

Amended: SB 287, filed by Sen. Bart Hester and Rep. Clint Penzo, was amended this week and re-referred to the Senate Committee on Education. This bill would allow recipients of certain state-funded scholarships to include lawful permanent residents, those with visas and those who are migrants from Compact of Free Association islands, such as the Marshall Islands. Current law states that only citizens can obtain those scholarships.

K-12 Education

Now Law: HB 1151, sponsored by Rep. Brian Evans and Sen. Lance Eads, is now Act 89, which requires that the public school rating system be suspended for the 2020-21 school year.

New: This week Sen. Joyce Elliott and Rep. Andrew Collins filed SB 314. This bill would require that a 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 democratically elected a public school board during a special election or an annual school election. However, this law does not prevent the State Board of Education from returning the public school district back to local control in less than five years. The biggest and most immediate impact of this law is that it would require that the Little Rock School District be returned to full local control. The bill has been assigned to the Senate Education Committee.

Scheduled: HB 1102, co-sponsored by Rep. Brian Evans and Sen. James Sturch, is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Committee on Education on Monday. The bill would require additional training and information for public school board members on school safety and student discipline and would mandate additional school district reporting requirements in this area.

Progressed: HB 1029, filed by Rep. Fred Allen, passed the House on Tuesday and has been referred to the Senate Education Committee. The bill would add John Walker to the list of civil rights leaders in the teaching materials regarding African American history in public schools. John W. Walker (1937-2019) was a lawyer who emerged from segregated schools and society in southwestern Arkansas to wage a 60-year war on discrimination in Arkansas’s education systems, public institutions and workforce. From 2011 until his death, Walker was a member of the Arkansas House of Representatives. He received numerous awards during his lifetime and was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.

Progressed: Sen. Jane English’s SB 31 passed the Senate Education Committee on Monday. The bill would amend the components of the college and career assessments by including assessments that lead to a nationally recognized work readiness certificate.

Withdrawn: Rep. David Tollett ‘s HB 1170 was withdrawn by the author this week. The bill would have changed the date that teachers must be able to demonstrate proficiency in the science of reading instruction from the 2021-2022 school year to the 2023-24 school year.

Juvenile Justice

New: This week Rep. Jamie Scott and Sen. Alan Clark filed HB 1470. This bill would prohibit placing a juvenile in solitary confinement in a juvenile detention facility if the juvenile: is pregnant; has delivered a child within the past 30 days; is breastfeeding; is suffering from postpartum depression; or is caring for a child in a juvenile detention facility.  Exceptions to the prohibition would apply if the juvenile has engaged in violence while detained or there is reasonable cause to believe that solitary confinement would reduce the imminent risk of injury/death to another person. Similar conditions and exceptions would prohibit adult inmates from being placed in restrictive housing. It has been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee.

Racial Equity

New: Rep. Vivian Flowers filed HJR 1021 this week. This proposed constitutional amendment would fully abolish slavery in Arkansas. It would repeal the part of the state constitution that allows slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. It states that, if prisoners are working, they should be compensated for that labor with either money or “good time” to shorten their sentences. It has been assigned to the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs.

Updates on some of the bills AACF Opposes


New: This week Rep. Justin Gonzalez and Sen. Ben Gilmore filed HB 1487. This bill would prevent Arkansans from holding businesses accountable through civil liability claims for COVID-19 cases caused by their business activities or by activities on their premises. It has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

New: Rep. Gonzalez and Sen. Gilmore also filed HB 1488 this week. This bill would exclude COVID-19 from workers compensation claims even if the employer requires an employee to perform work, where “within the normal course and scope of the employee’s job performance exposure to coronavirus 2019 … is possible, likely, or certain.” It has been referred to the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.

Democracy and Voting Rights

Scheduled: HB 1112, sponsored by Rep. Mark Lowery, is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs on Tuesday, Feb. 16. The bill would amend the state constitution to effectively end the right to vote for people without certain forms of ID. Right now, people can vote in person or absentee provisionally by signing a sworn affidavit to affirm their identity. The county clerks then verify the voters’ identities using voter registration records, and the election commissioners then count the ballots based on the clerks’ recommendation from reviewing those records. This would end the option to sign an affidavit, so that people who do not own a qualifying ID could no longer exercise their right vote. If you own an ID and forgot to bring it to the polls or submit it with your absentee ballot, you could vote provisionally and submit your ID to the county clerk or election commission office by 12:00 noon on the Monday following the election.

New: This week Rep. David Ray and Sen. Bart Hester filed HJR 1005, and Rep. DeeAnn Vaught filed HJR 1008. Both of these resolutions propose 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. Either amendment would increase the threshold to at least 60 percent of voters. They have both been assigned to the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs.

Family Economic Security

New: This week Sen. Scott Flippo and Rep. Robin Lundstrum filed SB 295. This bill would change many aspects of eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program (SNAP) and Medicaid. It would make it more difficult for the state and for hospitals to provide temporary Medicaid services to low-income people who are likely eligible for the program, which is known as “presumptive eligibility.” It would require that state agencies and commissions share information often to determine whether SNAP and Medicaid recipients have lottery or gambling winnings, whether they’ve gone to prison, or whether their job circumstances have changed, among other changes. After the current health emergency, it would require the Department of Human Services to quickly make determinations on whether to unenroll many Medicaid recipients who’ve had continuous coverage during the pandemic. It has been assigned to the Senate Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor.

Health Care

Progressed: Sen. Ken Hammer and Rep. Brandt Smith’s SB 289 passed the Senate on Wednesday and has been assigned to the House Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor. This bill, commonly known as the “healthcare conscience bill,” would allow health care providers to refuse treatment to people based on the health care worker’s religious, moral, ethical, or philosophical beliefs or principles.

K-12 Education

New: Rep. David Tollett filed HB 1452 this week. This bill would significantly expand the list of allowable uses for Enhanced Student Achievement K-12 funding (more commonly known as school poverty funding). By adopting these changes, it continues the trend in recent years of eroding the original intent of poverty funding to focus on research-proven strategies for closing achievement gaps for low-income students. It has been referred to the House Education Committee.

New: Rep. David Ray filed HB 1446 this week. This bill would expand the list of groups eligible to receive a Succeed Scholarship, used to pay private school K-12 vouchers with funding meant for public schools.

Scheduled: HB 1101, sponsored by Rep. Brian Evans and Sen. James Sturch, is scheduled to be heard by Senate Committee on Education on Monday, Feb. 15. The bill would increase the number of signatures required to petition a local school district board to meet, from the current 50 qualified electors in the school district, to whichever is greater: 50, but no more than 200, qualified electors in the district or 1 percent of the qualified electors in the school district.

Racial Equity

Scheduled: SB 24, sponsored by Sen. Bob Ballinger and Rep. Aaron Pilkington, which failed to pass the House Judiciary Committee last week, is scheduled to be heard again by the committee on Tuesday, Feb. 16. The so-called “Stand Your Ground” bill would remove the duty to retreat, under certain circumstances, from Arkansas’s self-defense law.

Failed: This week Rep. Lowery and Sen. Stubblefield’s HB 1231 failed to pass the House Committee on Education. This bill aimed to reduce funding to schools that include in their curriculum the “1619 Project.” That’s the New York Times’ sweeping investigation of the history of racial disparity in the United States, beginning with the first slave ships that arrived here more than 400 years ago. Following the bill’s rejection by the committee, Rep. Lowery stated he intends to withdraw both HB 1231 and his companion bill, HB 1218, which aimed to withhold partial funding from public schools and colleges that allowed courses, classes or events that “advocate for the isolation of a group of students” based on certain characteristics, including race, ethnicity, gender, religion, social class, or political affiliation. Both bills remain on the State Legislature’s roster, however.

Tax and Budget

Scheduled: HB 1361, filed by Rep. Les Eaves and Sen. Jonathan Dismang, passed the House Committee on Revenue and Taxation this week and is scheduled to be heard by the House on Monday, Feb. 15. This bill would allow businesses that received loans through the Paycheck Protection Program to deduct payroll and other expenses paid from PPP loans from taxable income.