By HUNTER FIELD | Arkansas Advocate
That sound you hear is the rejoicing of lawmakers, lobbyists, reporters and legislative staff that the 2023 legislative session is over.
The Arkansas House of Representatives and Senate each met Friday morning to consider the final bills of the session before adjourning.
They will still return in a few weeks to override any vetoes (none are expected), make technical corrections and then adjourn sine die, but they’re done considering new laws.
Legislative sessions are months of intense work for lawmakers and all of those people that follow and work alongside them. The last two weeks have included some particularly long, busy days as legislators raced to finish by April 7.
Just this week, the General Assembly passed a massive overhaul of Arkansas’ parole system, a $124 million income tax cut, a $6.2 billion budget and bill that would require social media companies to verify users’ ages.
Here’s what you need to know from the state Capitol this week:
1) Parole and tax cuts
“I think when people write about the 94th they’ll write about the improvements we made to education and they’ll write about the improvements we made to public safety.” — Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, on the House floor Friday.
Last week, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders threw her support behind the Protect Arkansas Act, which received final legislative approval on Friday.
The “truth in sentencing” law changes a lot about Arkansas’ sentencing, parole and prison systems, but the biggest change is the elimination of automatic parole eligibility for convicted felons in Arkansas and the requirement that those convicted of the state’s most serious offenses, like rape and murder, serve 100% of their prison sentences behind bars.
Proponents of the bill have focused on the need keep violent, repeat offenders locked up, but criminal justice researchers have cast doubt on whether the proposal will make any meaningful dent on crime in the state.
Sanders’ final major legislative priority was tax cuts, and this week the Legislature passed a bill to reduce Arkansas’ top individual income tax rate from 4.9% to 4.7%.
House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, said he likes how the state is positioned financially. While nothing is set in stone, he said there have been discussions about a possible special session later this year to cut taxes further if state revenues remain strong.
2) Constitutional Amendment
The General Assembly will refer only one constitutional amendment to the 2024 ballot.
House Joint Resolution 1006 would tweak Amendment 87 to the Arkansas Constitution, which Arkansans approved in 2008 to create the state lottery and lottery scholarships.
HJR 1006 would allow the scholarships to go to students enrolling in technical and vocation schools. Under Amendment 87, the scholarships can only go to “public and private non-profit two-year and four-year colleges and universities” in the state.
The Legislature has the ability to refer up to three amendments and usually does, but no consensus ever formed around any of the other proposals.
Several legislators said this was due, in part, to voters rejecting all three of the amendment referred by state lawmakers to the 2022 ballot.
3) Culture Wars
It wouldn’t be a week of the 94th General Assembly without a few bills on divisive social issues.
A handful of bills passed, but one that failed produced one of the most compelling debates of the legislative session.
Senate Bill 71 proposed eliminating the state’s affirmative action programs, but it died on the House floor Wednesday night after several passionate speeches from members of both parties against the bill.
One moving speech came from Rep. Fred Allen, a Democrat from Little Rock who rarely speaks on the House floor.
The entire 40-minute debate can be watched here; it begins around 8:35 p.m.
Among the bills that did pass, first came House Bill 1615, the “Conscience Protection Act.” The bill is an effort to clarify and solidify religious liberty protections and is similar to one of the ballot measures Arkansans voted down last year.
Next, lawmakers sent a bill to Gov. Sanders that would require public school teachers and professors to use the pronouns and names students were assigned at birth, unless parents specifically allow them to do otherwise.
Even with parental permission, teachers could choose not to use a transgender student’s preferred pronouns under House Bill 1468.
Last, Senate Bill 396 — given final legislative approval on Thursday — would make Arkansas the first state to implement a law requiring social media companies, like Twitter and Facebook, to verify users’ ages and obtain parental permission before allowing minors to sign up.
The legislation, backed by Sanders, has raised a number of privacy and constitutional concerns.
The bill enjoyed the backing of a bipartisan majority of lawmakers, and proponents have said it’s intended to protect teens from the dangers of social media.
This week, bills flew through the Legislature.
Lawmakers were in a rush to finish by April 7, and the House and Senate each suspended portions of their rules to allow legislation to move more quickly between committees and the chamber floors.
Floor sessions and committee meetings stretched late into the night this week, and some bill were considered by both chambers on the same day.
It’s become an unfortunate tradition at the end of each legislative session that makes it more difficult for the public to participate and follow the process.
When I asked Speaker Shepherd about this on Friday, he said the rule suspensions were necessary because the General Assembly is bound by state law and the Constitution on how long it can remain in session.
“I feel very comfortable with what the process is particularly if you think about going through both the House and the Senate,” Shepherd said.
“There’s still ample opportunity for public participation,” he added. “You saw that this last week, there were bills that maybe it did come out of the House or Senate, made its way out with out much opposition. It gets to the other end, and you know, there’s opposition at that point and it gets defeated.”
A debate about proposed changes to other House rules on Friday — just before adjournment — also produced some of the most tense debate of the session.
All three rule changes offered were voted down handily.
The first two dealt with how members are appointed to the House Rules Committee. Currently, its members are each appointed by the House Speaker, unlike other House committees where the speaker only appoints the chairmen.
The Rules Committee is unique, and in addition to matters related to rules, it also has jurisdiction of the “sin issues,” like tobacco, marijuana, alcohol, pornography and gambling bills.
Rep. Grant Hodges’ resolutions would’ve changed how members are appointed to the Rules committee and removed the policy of sending bills related to “sin issues” to the panel.
Hodges noted that his proposal wasn’t a shot at Shepherd’s leadership and stemmed from his opinion on how committees should be comprised. Giving so much power to one individual isn’t good governance and could become problematic if the House elected a speaker with poor judgment.
The usually-stoic Shepherd spoke emphatically against the measure.
He said the House’s rules had been developed over a long period and stood the test of time. He said rules changes should be rare in a body of 100 members to maintain consistency.
Shepherd said afterwards that he’d likely be accused of speaking against the measure to protect himself, but he did so because he felt it was in the best interest of the institution.
The third proposal would’ve required future House speaker elections to be held in public. Sponsor Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs, said public speaker elections would bring greater transparency.
Currently, speaker elections are held by secret ballot.
Shepherd didn’t speak on this proposal, but several members said it would be a mistake to make the votes public. They said it would invite lobbying from special interests groups who favor one candidate over others and could lead to personal animosity over who each member supports.
Rules debates are very “inside baseball,” but they are interesting because they’re mostly nonpartisan and reveal some of the Legislature’s factions.
If interested, you can find the whole debate here; it starts at about 11:24 a.m.
5) Parting Shots
This is our final Session Snapshot for 2023, unless there’s a special session later this year.
We’ve tried to provide easy-to-digest weekly recaps of all three months the Arkansas Legislature has been in session. We hope they’ve made it easier to stay informed and follow action that can sometimes be difficult to track.
All 12 of our recaps can be found here.
If you’d like to support this work, you can subscribe to our daily newsletter, which will continue even with the session’s conclusion.
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Thanks for following along.
Senior Reporter Antoinette Grajeda contributed to this story.
Categories: Region & State