Approximately halfway through the session, the pace at the Capitol really picked up this week. We are especially excited to report that adults who were born in the Marshall Islands can now obtain Medicaid coverage in Arkansas, ending a decades-old injustice that exacerbated already persistent health disparities. On Tuesday, a legislative review committee approved an administrative rule that changes the wording of the state’s Medicaid policy manual. It makes clear that adults born in Compact of Free Association nations, including the Marshall Islands, are no longer excluded from the program. This confirms that Arkansas will abide by a new federal law approved late last year. The most recent coronavirus relief package, signed into law on December 27, 2020, gave Marshallese migrants Medicaid eligibility for the first time since 1996. You can read more about this here.
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
Progressed (quickly): HB 1517, which would allow people to register to vote online, had an eventful week. Filed on Monday by Rep. Justin Boyd and Sen. Breanne Davis, the bill passed out of the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs on Wednesday and was passed by the full House of Representatives on Thursday.
Economic Self Sufficiency
New: On Wednesday, Rep. Jimmy Gazaway filed HB 1563. This bill would create minimum standards for rental housing and remedies for tenants whose landlords don’t repair defects that have an effect on health and safety. It would also add a simple eviction procedure to be heard by district courts that would be easier to file, not require attorneys, and would guarantee both parties a hearing. The bill is assigned to the House Committee on Insurance and Commerce.
Progressed: SB 287, sponsored by Sen. Bart Hester and Rep. Clint Penzo, passed the Senate Education Committee on Monday, passed the full Senate on Tuesday, and passed the House Education Committee on Thursday. The 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.
Passed: HB 1102, sponsored by Rep. Brian Evans and Sen. James Sturch, passed the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, passed the full Senate on Wednesday, and now moves to the Governor’s desk to be signed into law. The bill requires 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: Sen. Jane English’s SB 31 passed the Senate on Thursday. The bill would amend the components of the college and career assessments by including assessments that lead to a nationally recognized work readiness certificate. It has been assigned to the House Education Committee.
Progressed: SB 107, co-sponsored by Sen. Jane English and Rep. DeAnn Vaught, passed the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. The bill would require that (1) each public high school provide a high-quality computer science class tailored to meet the needs of each participating student and (2) each public high school to employ a computer science teacher. The bill is scheduled to be heard by the full Senate on Monday, March 1.
Progressed: HB 1029, sponsored by Rep. Fred Allen, passed the Senate Education committee on Wednesday. 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. It is scheduled to be heard by the full Senate on Monday, March 1.
Updates on some of the bills AACF opposes
Progressed: Rep. Justin Gonzales and Sen. Ben Gilmore’s HB 1488 passed the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee on Thursday. 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.”
Democracy and Voting Rights
Passed: HB 1112, filed by Rep. Mark Lowery, passed the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs on Tuesday, passed the full Senate on Wednesday, and was sent to the Governor yesterday to be signed into law. The new law will amend the state constitution to effectively end the right to vote for people without certain forms of ID. You can read more about how this disenfranchises voters in our recent blog post.
Family Economic Security
Progressed: Sen. Scott Flippo and Rep. Robin Lundstrum’s SB 295 passed the Senate Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor on Wednesday; but after discussion of the bill in the full Senate on Thursday, the sponsor plans to pull the bill for amendment. This bill would change many aspects of eligibility for 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 more often to determine whether a person’s financial situation has changed, and it would require people enrolled in the programs to report temporary income changes to the state, even an amount as small as $100. It would require more frequent checks of whether SNAP and Medicaid recipients have lottery or gambling winnings, whether they’ve gone to prison, 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.
New: This week Rep. Kendon Underwood and Sen. Bart Hester filed HB 1512. This bill would limit the state’s ability to extend SNAP benefits to families who are having trouble meeting work requirements. It has been assigned to the House Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor.
Failed in Committee: Sen. Ken Hammer and Rep. Brandt Smith’s SB 289 failed to pass the House Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor on Thursday. The 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. There was strong opposition from the business community and healthcare professionals although it was supported by the state Surgeon General.
New: On Wednesday, Sen. Bob Ballinger and Rep. Mary Bentley filed SB 389. This bill would require public schools to make available to parents for inspection curricula and other materials related to sex education, sexual orientation, and gender identity. It would allow 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. The bill is assigned to the Senate Education Committee.
Progressed: HB 1101, sponsored by Rep. Brian Evans and Sen. James Sturch, passed the Senate Committee on Education on Monday. It was heard by the full Senate on Tuesday and failed to pass; however, the vote was expunged, meaning the bill sponsors can bring the bill up for a vote in the future. 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.
Passed: SB 24, sponsored by Sen. Bob Ballinger and Rep. Aaron Pilkington, passed the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, passed the full House of Representatives on Wednesday, and was sent to the Governor to be signed into law on Thursday. The new law will remove the duty to retreat, under certain circumstances, from Arkansas’s self-defense law.
Tax and Budget
Passed: HB 1361, sponsored by Rep. Les Eaves and Sen. Jonathan Dismang, passed the Senate Revenue and Tax Committee on Wednesday, passed the full Senate on Thursday and was sent today to the Governor to be signed into law. The new law will allow businesses that received loans through the Paycheck Protection Program to deduct from their taxable income the business expenses they paid with the money, even if the loans were forgiven by the federal government.
Withdrawn: Rep. Lanny Fite and Sen. David Wallace withdrew HB 1316 on Wednesday. The bill aimed to eliminate a tax on the manufacturers and wholesalers of soft drinks that funds the Medicaid Trust Fund.
New: Rep. Lanny Fite and Sen. David Wallace filed a new bill, HB 1546, which would do much the same thing as HB 1316 was intended to do: phase out the soft drink tax. It’s scheduled to be heard Tuesday afternoon by the House Committee on Revenue and Taxation.