Recap of the 93rd General Assembly
LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas State Legislature recessed last week some 108 days after convening on Jan. 11. The 93rd General Assembly, newsworthy until both chambers’ last gavel on April 28 ahead of an expected fall session to handle congressional voter redistricting, passed more than 1,100 individual acts that were signed into law by Gov.
Asa Hutchinson over the extended session.
Three constitutional amendments up for voter consideration
The 93rd General Assembly confirmed three constitutional amendments which now head to voters for their consideration during the 2022 midterm elections. Needing a simple majority to pass, the three amendments will be on voters’ ballots across the state in November 2022.
Senate Joint Resolution 10 Confirmed by the Senate on April 22, SJR 10 would allow the state legislature to convene itself into extraordinary session provided the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate issue a joint proclamation calling for the session or that two-thirds of both chamber sign a proclamation requesting it.
The amendment, which received broad support in both chambers, was filed just a year after the governor – who currently holds the sole privilege of calling for an extraordinary session – called both chambers into session in response to the then-beginning coronavirus pandemic.
SJR 10 was reviewed by the governor on April 29.
House Joint Resolution 1005
Also confirmed on April 22, HJR 1005 raises the bar for the passage of constitutional amendments by voters in the state and increases the threshold of the passage of a constitutional amendment to 60 percent of voters in the state. The amendment, which received more pushback than its counterpart SJR 10, passed by a final Senate vote of 23-6.
HJR 1005 was reviewed by the governor on April 28.
Religious Freedom Amendment
The final constitutional amendment up for voters’ consideration is SJR 14.
Known as the “Arkansas Religious Freedom Amendment,” SJR 14 provides that “government may never burden a person’s freedom of religion except in the rare circumstance that the government demonstrates that application of the burden to the person is in furtherance of a compelling government interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest,” per the bill’s language.
In committee meetings, supporters of the amendment said that SJR 14 would ensure the protection of religious freedom in the state for years to come.
SJR 14 was reviewed by the governor on April 30.
Controversial legislation fuels partisan divide
The 93rd General Assembly was noteworthy for the sheer volume of controversial legislation that both chambers entertained during its regular session. Most of the controversial bills passed on party-line votes in both chambers and some received scrutiny in both local and national press.
Stand Your Ground Bill The first controversial bill signed into law by the governor was SB 24, a “standyour- ground” bill which passed the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 23
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nearly a month after crashing out of the committee in a previous vote.
Signed into law by the governor on March 3, State Sen. Bob Ballinger’s bill removes a “duty to retreat” from the state’s legal code regarding self-defense and allows Arkansans who are lawfully present in a location and not engaged in criminal activity to use physical force without attempting to retreat from a confrontation.
Opponents of the bill in the legislature, largely Democrats, frequently described the bill as a “license to kill” that encourages confrontations.
Proponents of SB 24, however, said that it applies very narrowly to specific situations in which retreating from a confrontation is impossible.
SB 24 was enrolled as Act 250 on March 3.
Voting Reform Legislation HB 1112, also signed by the governor on March 3, drew headlines for amending the state’s existing voter identification law to require Arkansans unable to provide an identification prior to voting to return to their polling place after casting a provisional ballot with an acceptable identification
before their vote can
Sponsored by State Rep.
Mark Lowery, supporters of HB 1112 described it as a common-sense measure to ensure election integrity. In committee meetings, Lowery said that nearly 80 percent of Arkansans signaled their support for voter identification laws in the 2018 midterm election. Critics, however, including Sen. Joyce Elliot, said they believed HB 1112 is one more bill in a list that have worked to suppress voter turnout and disenfranchise voters.
The governor cited his support for previous voter identification laws as part of his reasoning for signing HB 1112. He also attempted to calm bill opponents in his comments about HB 1112 on March 3.
“HB 1112 allows anyone who doesn’t have a photo identification to receive one free of charge,” the governor said.
HB 1112 was enrolled as Act 249 on March 3.
On March 9, the governor signed SB 6, State Sen.
Jason Rapert’s controversial near-total abortion ban into law. Notable for its lack of rape and incest exemptions, Rapert said in February that SB 6 was the “boldest” pro-life stance a state Senate in the country had taken, and cited organizations, including Americans United for Life, which had ranked Arkansas as the No. 1 pro-life state in the country.
In discussing an all-butcertain legal fight over SB 6, which is at odds with precedents set by the U.S.
Supreme Court, Rapert said he couldn’t be completely confident any potential Supreme Court ruling on his bill or others like it that have passed other state legislatures would hold up to the court’s scrutiny.
“I never would’ve imagined abortion would have been ruled constitutional,” Rapert said, adding that the time for SB 6 and other legislation like it is now.
“[Now] is the best opportunity in 48 years to overturn Roe v. Wade.”
In his comments after signing SB 6 on March 9, the governor said he would have liked to see rape and incest exemptions in the bill, but he decided to sign the bill into law due to “overwhelming legislative support” and his “sincere and long-held pro-life convictions.”
SB 6 was enrolled as Act 308 on March 10.
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Eighteen days later, on March 27, the governor signed SB 354, which bars transgender women from competing alongside other women in sports in the state into law. Sponsored by Sen. Missy Irvin and Rep. Sonia Eubanks Barker, the bill follows the model of similar legislation which was signed into law earlier this year in Mississippi.
The bill’s language prohibits transgender women from competing with other women in sports at schools across the state, ranging from public elementary and secondary schools to public colleges and universities.
In his comments on signing the bill, the governor outlined his support for SB 354.
“[SB 354] simply says that female athletes should not have to compete in a sport against a student of the male sex when the sport is designed for women’s competition,” the governor said. “As I have stated previously, I agree with the intention of this law. [SB 354] will help promote and maintain fairness in women’s sporting events.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arkansas released a statement condemning the governor’s signature of the bill. “This bill does nothing to protect women or girls in sport,” ACLU of Arkansas Executive Director Holly Dickson said. “Arkansas needs to support young Arkansans – not target a vulnerable group for political gamesmanship and at the expense of all young people.”
SB 354 was enrolled as Act 461 on March 29.
Just over a week later, the governor vetoed HB 1570.
Sponsored by Rep. Robin Lundstrum and Sen. Alan Clark, HB 1570 bars health care professionals from providing gender transition medical procedures and surgeries to Arkansas transgender children under the age of 18.
“[HB 1570] protects children from making mistakes that they will have a very difficult time coming back from,” Clark said on the Senate floor.
In explaining his decision to veto HB 1570, which received broad support amongst Republicans in both legislative chambers, the governor described the bill as “overbroad” and an “overreach.”
“The most recent action of
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the General Assembly, while well-intentioned, is off course and I must veto HB 1570,” the governor said. “If HB 1570 becomes law, we are creating new standards of legislative interference with physicians and parents as they deal with some of the most complex and sensitive matters involving young people.”
“Largely symbolic,” as the governor described his veto, both chambers easily overrode the governor’s decision and HB 1570 was enrolled as Act 626 on April 13.
In a recent address to Arkansans, the governor outlined the most successful legislative initiatives he signed into law. Released on April 30, the governor outlined the Revenue Stabilization Act (RSA) as one major success.
Necessary to pass every year since it was first introduced in the 1940s, the governor said passage ensured Arkansas would maintain a balanced budget.
“As part of the RSA this year, our reserve funds continue to build,” the governor said. “We have consistently increased our surplus funds from zero when I took office to the current $210 million. And with the new budget adopted in this session of the General Assembly, I expect those reserve funds to grow to more than $700 million.”
The governor also discussed several other bills he considers to be successes of the session.
“Other bills we passed include a $2,000 increase in the median salary for school teachers; a reduction in the number of years of service for state police officers to retire from 30 years to 28 years; a requirement that Arkansas students take at least one computer science course to graduate; and that every high school employ at least one certified computer science teacher,” the governor said.
“As you can see, we had a very busy and successful legislative session.”
In a final piece of news from the legislature, both chambers signed the governor’s long-awaited hate crimes legislation, SB 622, into law. Outlined as a priority in his State of the State Address in January, the governor signed the bill into law on April 14.
Slimmed-down and short of the governor’s original expectations for a hate crimes bill, SB 622 doesn’t include the term “hate crime” in the bill’s language and lacks a specific list of protected groups of people, a point of contention between Republicans and Democrats in the state legislature.
Despite his misgivings about the fact SB 622 wasn’t what he envisioned when introducing the priority last August, the governor said he still supported the legislation he signed into law that increased prison time for anyone who targeted a victim of a violent crime due to their race or other characteristic.
“I am very appreciative of the work of key legislative leaders in crafting a new bill that makes it clear that Arkansas will increase the prison time for anyone targeting another for a violent crime because of their race or other characteristic,” the governor said. “While this is not the bill that I had envisioned at the beginning of the session, it is a significant step forward in giving assurance that we are a state that values the diversity of our country.”
SB 622 was enrolled as Act 681 on April 14.
While the 93rd General Assembly has recessed, it has yet to gavel out of session and adjourn. Due to a delay in the release of U.S.
Census data, legislators will reconvene likely sometime in the fall to complete voter redistricting requirements.