Arkansas Advocates 2021 Legislative Session Recap, Vol. 9

This week marks the anniversary of the World Health Organization recognizing COVID-19 as a global pandemic. In recognition of a year’s work mostly spent on Zoom and under extraordinary circumstances, the staff of AACF will be taking the afternoon to rest and reflect.

Something to celebrate this week is the federal relief package signed by President Joe Biden. The package includes temporary changes to the Child Tax Credit that will cut the child poverty rate in the United States by nearly half while the policy is in place. This is a wonderful policy that will hopefully become permanent. Thanks so much to everyone who shared messages and advocated on behalf of this lifesaving package.

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: HB 1517, sponsored by Rep. Justin Boyd and Sen. Breanne Davis, passed the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs on Monday and passed the full House on Wednesday. The bill, which would allow people to register to vote online, is now assigned to the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs.

New Bill: Sen. Greg Leding filed SB 509 on Tuesday. The bill would require employers to provide two hours of paid leave for employees to vote on election days. There is an exception if the employee’s work schedule includes two consecutive non-work hours when the polls are open.

Health Care

Progressed: SB 410, sponsored by Sen. Missy Irvin and Rep. Michelle Gray, passed the Senate on Tuesday. The bill proposes to change 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 bill proposes 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 would be required to take part in “Health Improvement Initiatives” and “Economic Independent Initiatives.” An Oversight Advisory Panel would be created to monitor the program. The bill has been assigned to the House Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor.

Progressed: This week, HB 1176, sponsored by Reps. Lee Johnson and Aaron Pilkington, along with Sen. Breanne Davis, passed  the Senate and was referred back to the House Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor to concur in a Senate-added amendment. The bill originally would have made permanent the pandemic-related change that allows Medicaid to pay for mental health services delivered through telemedicine. As amended, that would continue only through the end of this year, or the end of the public health emergency, whichever is later.

Progressed: On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee passed HB 1470 by Rep. Jamie Scott and Sen. Alan Clark. It would limit the use of solitary confinement for pregnant women and new mothers in jails, prisons and juvenile facilities. It would prohibit solitary confinement for those women except under limited circumstances, including a substantial risk of imminent serious physical injury. And then, the solitary confinement couldn’t be for more than 30 days. The bill now goes to the House.

Immigrant Families

Progressed: The House passed HB 1379, sponsored by Rep. Clint Penzo and Sen. Bob Ballinger, on Wednesday. This bill aims to protect the rights of birth mothers during adoption proceedings. Among other things, it would ensure that they can only consent to adoption when the information is translated into their native language. It is now assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Amended: A related bill by Rep. Penzo was amended this week to add Sen. Ballinger as a co-sponsor. HB 1554 would establish an affirmative defense to a prosecution if the accused was a victim of human trafficking. It would also expand protections for women coerced into giving their children up for adoption. The bill is assigned to the House Judiciary Committee.

Progressed: Rep. Megan Godfrey and Sen. Clarke Tucker’s HB 1451 passed the House Education Committee on Thursday. 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.

Progressed: On Thursday, HB 1594, sponsored by Rep. DeAnn Vaught and Sen. Lance Eads, along with Rep. Godfrey, passed the House Education Committee. The bill would allow immigrants who are lawfully residing in the United States under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status — commonly referred to as DACA — to obtain teaching licenses in Arkansas.

K-12 Education

New Bills: Sen. Irvin and Rep. Vaught filed SB 501 and SB 502 on Monday. SB 501 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. SB 502 would expand the current ban against expulsions and out-of-school suspensions for kids in pre-k through grade 5 to all foster care students and special education students up to grade 12. Both are assigned to the Senate Education Committee.

Progressed: Sen. Irvin and Rep. Johnson’s SB 291 passed the full Senate on Monday. The bill defines characteristics and strategies for community schools; defines responsibilities of community school coordinators; defines a community school plan; outlines assistance that the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education may provide to community schools; would give the State Board of Education the authority to require public school districts in need of Level 5 Intensive Support to develop a system of whole-child supports through a community school plan; would allow public school charters to be designated as community schools; and would allow public school charters to include in their plans for academic achievement the implementation of a community school plan. It now assigned to the House Education Committee.

Now Law: Sen. Jane English’s SB 31 passed the House on Monday and is now Act 319. The new law will amend the components of the college and career assessments by including assessments that lead to a nationally recognized work readiness certificate.

Failed in Committee: SB 314, sponsored by Sen. Joyce Elliott and Rep. Andrew Collins, failed to pass the Senate Education Committee on Monday. 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. The biggest and most immediate impact of this bill would have been to require that the Little Rock School District be returned to full local control.

Updates On Some Of The Bills AACF Opposes

Democracy and Voting Rights

New Bill: This week Sen. Kim Hammer and Rep. Justin Gonzales filed SB 485, which 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. The bill is assigned to the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs.

Family and Economic Security

New Bill: Rep. Austin McCollum and Sen. Bart Hester filed HB 1676 on Tuesday. This bill would reduce the maximum length of unemployment benefits from 16 weeks to 12 weeks in some circumstances. The bill is assigned to the House Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor.

Amended: On Wednesday, The Senate Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor amended SB 295 by Sen. Scott Flippo and Rep. Robin Lundstrum. This bill would change many aspects of eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program (SNAP) and Medicaid. It would require 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. 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. We expect the bill to be heard by the full Senate next week.

Food Security

Progressed: HB 1512, filed by Rep. Kendon Underwood and Sen. Bart Hester, passed the House on Tuesday. This bill would limit the state’s ability to extend SNAP benefits to families who are having trouble meeting the work requirements. It is now assigned to the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.

Health Care

Progressed: An amended version of Sen. Ken Hammer and Rep. Brandt Smith’s SB 289, commonly known as the “healthcare conscience bill,” passed the House Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor on Thursday. The 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. It will head to the full House for a vote next. It was amended this week to remove philosophical beliefs as a reason for denying medical care. The amendment also added social work or mental health students the right to deny care or a referral to the degree that they are required to actively and materially participate in service that violates their conscience. It establishes a protocol for the notification of the refusal of care. The bill will be heard next by the full House.

Progressed: HB 1570, sponsored by Rep. Robin Lundstrum and Sen. Alan Clark, passed the House Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor on Tuesday and passed the House on Wednesday. This bill would ban gender transition treatment for minors, including hormonal treatment and therapies that are provided now in Arkansas. It has been referred to the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.

Tax and Budget

New Bill: Sen. Jonathan Dismang filed SB 483 on Monday. This bill would eliminate the “throwback rule” that ensures corporations pay taxes on all of their income. It is assigned to the Senate Revenue and Tax Committee.