Last week, the 90th General Assembly concluded its 2015 regular session business. Like survivors of a natural disaster, it’s time for us to survey the landscape and determine the damage.
I created a list of what I consider to be the Top 10 worst bills filed in this session. Some of the bills on this list became law and others, thankfully, never made it to the Governor’s desk.
This was a tough list for this opinion writer to compile, not due to the lack of bad bills filed, but because of the overabundance. I sought the “off the record” opinions of various lobbyists, legislators and longtime political observers to put this list together, which is complied in no particular order.
Top Ten Worst Bills Filed in 2015
1) Hijacking of Public Schools – HB1733 (Sponsor – Rep. Bruce Cozart). The Arkansas Education Association called this legislation “one of the most dangerous pieces of anti-public school legislation introduced this legislative session.” It would have allowed the state to take over a school or school district deemed to be in distress and turn it over to a private charter school operator. There would have been no transparency or accountability over the private operator. Thankfully, the bill never got out of House committee due to a significant backlash from public school supporters.
2) Drug Testing the Poor: SB600 (Sponsor – Sen. Blake Johnson). This bill requires drug testing of those who receive benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and are suspected of using drugs. It will cost $1.75 million to get the program started and more than $2 million a year to maintain it. The program will likely be a monumental waste of taxpayer money since states with similar programs found that only 1-2% of those tested were on drugs. The bill became law.
3) Legalized discrimination – HB 1228 (Sponsor Rep. Bob Ballinger). This bill created a state and national firestorm that caught everyone, including the bill’s backer, by surprise. In many people’s view, this bill would have created a private right to discriminate if based on a “sincerely held religious belief.” I’d add SB 202 (Sponsor – Sen. Bart Hester) to the category since it prohibited local governments from outlawing discrimination. HB1228 ultimately did not become law, but SB202 did.
4) No License, No Problem – HB1158 (Sponsor – Rep. Richard Womack). Essentially the bill would have just about eliminated the requirement for occupations such as electricians, architects, accountants and others to forgo the needs of a professional license. Surely it’s not a big deal if the electrician wiring your house doesn’t have a license, what could possibly go wrong? The bill made it out of House committee, but never came up for a vote after a myriad of professional groups opposed it.
5) Tax Cuts for the Wealthy – HB 1402 (Sponsor – Rep. Matthew Shepherd). Basically a major tax giveaway to the wealthy. It raised the capital gains exemption back to 50% and unbelievably, exempts capital gains of $10 million which would benefit about 10-12 people. The bill became law.
6) Cutting Medicaid Funding – SB725 (Sponsor – Sen. Jake Files). This bill would have cut the Medicaid Trust Fund by $4 million a year. However, since the federal government has a 70:30 match on state Medicaid spending, this bill would have caused this vital program to lose many more millions per year. The bill would have accomplished this by reducing the tax on soft drink syrup. The bill died in committee.
7) Ending the Private Option – HB1181 (Sponsor – Rep. Donnie Copeland). This measure called for the private option to end on December 31, 2015 regardless of the repercussions to the hundreds of thousands enrolled in the program as well as to the hospitals across the state who were staying in the black solely because they no longer had to provide uncompensated care. HB1262 (Sponsor – Rep. Josh Miller) called for the private option to end on June 30, 2016 with the same approach. Both bills failed.
8) Sticking it to Cancer Victims – HB1529 (Sponsor – Rep. Rick Beck). The bill was created to protect just one company, Crown Cork & Seal, from “future liability for asbestos claims” against a company it bought, Mundet, which made insulation. The company is going state-by-state getting this type of legislation passed so it won’t have to pay claims filed by mesothelioma sufferers. Heaven forbid cancer survivors receive financial help from a company that harmed them. The bill became law.
9) Gutting the Freedom of Information Act – More than two dozen bills were filed this session to provide for new exemptions under Arkansas’s Freedom of Information law. Some of these bills failed, but too many became law. When citizens are prevented from discovering what their government is doing, democracy suffers.
10) No More California Wine – In a session full of silly bills, HB 1934 sponsored by Rep. Dan Douglas just might take the cake, or more to the point, wine. This bill called for banning the import of California wine since that state passed a voter-approved law requiring egg-laying chickens to have a certain amount of space. The bill passed the House, but died in the Senate. If the bill had become law Arkansans might have resorted to drinking, the horror, French wine. Sacrebleu!
Are there bills that should have been on this list? Shoot me an email and give me your opinion.