Lawmakers file flurry of bills ahead of Monday deadline; bills seek to close a law school, create Civil War museum

by Wesley Brown ( 455 views 

As the deadline to introduce new legislation for the 91st General Assembly closed Monday at 5 p.m., lawmakers filed more than 300 bills on the 57th day of the 2017 session that extend the hand of government into nearly every facet of Arkansas life – except for one notable exception.

Senate Bill 626 by Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, is a one-line bill that simply states, “the purpose of this act is to preserve the right to be left alone.” When reached for comment on his bill Monday evening, Hutchinson offered no reason or explanation for his legislation.

According to the Arkansas law, no bill shall be filed in either the House or Senate later than the 55th day of the regular session, except upon the consent of two-thirds of the members elected to each house. Since the 55th day of the session this year fell on the weekend, the deadline was moved to the first day of this week.

Pre-filing for the 2017 began on Nov. 15 of last year. One of the first bills filed was Senate Bill 12 by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, which would exempt emergency and security records at education institutions from the state Freedom of Information Act. Stubblefield said he introduced similar legislation at the end of the 2015 legislative session, but it did not make it through committee. Stubblefield said he filed SB 12 because he knows teachers and school administrators in his Senate district with valid permits to carry a firearm for personal protection while on school property.

“This bill keeps their names from disclosure and protects those teachers that carry weapons,” he said.

Stubblefield’s bill was approved 24-5 by the Senate on Feb. 9 , with five members not voting. The bill has since remained in the House Education Committee where lawmakers have a motion to amend the measure that some Freedom of Information advocates say weakens the state’s open records law.

Meanwhile, many of the bills filed just ahead of Monday’s deadline will have a more difficult path of being enacted into law, especially with most of the key policy and regulatory bills in the legislative pipeline already on the committee calendar or headed to the House or Senate floors.

Of the bills that were filed over the last few days, several proposals are so-called “shell bills” that offer generic language or little detail except for a title that hints at hot-button or controversial national issues, such as those related to the 2nd amendment, abortion, gay marriage and the ongoing bathroom bill debate. For example, HB2146 by Rep. Clint Penzo, R-Springdale, simply states “the purpose of this act concerns the laws relating to abortion.” On the other hand, Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, has filed HB 2098, a three-page provision that “would only recognize the marital union of man and woman” and prevent a marriage license to be issued for persons of the same sex.

SB629 would close one of the law schools in the state. The one-line bill, if approved, would mean that either the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville or the William H. Bowen School of Law operated by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock would be closed.

Another bill likely to stir debate is HB2201 by Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers, which would direct the state Heritage Department to conduct a feasibility study concerning the establishment of a Civil War Museum in Arkansas. That bill could be seen by some lawmakers as a tradeoff for the governor’s proposal before the Senate this week to separate the Martin Luther King Jr. and Gen. Robert E. Lee holidays.

There are also several groups of bills filed on the last day that deal with issues that will likely go on for some time. They include legislation dealing with education and school choice, voter rights, state alcohol laws, parental rights, and of course, the right to bear arms.

Still, of the dozens of bills filed on Monday’s deadline, only a few even have a chance to make it out of committee. One such measure is SB660 by Sen. Linda Collins-Smith, R-Pocahontas, which would replace the guns on campus bill allowing concealed carry permit-holders, including students, to carry a weapon at state colleges and universities.

Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, said last week that discussions have moved forward with all parties involved on HB1249 by Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville – which initially allowed for university faculty and staff to carry weapons on campus. A week ago, the controversial legislation was amended following a Senate committee compromise that would allow any permit holder 25 years or older to carry a weapon on campus after undergoing active shooter training and paying a nominal fee. Those changes to the bill were preceded on Feb. 16 by a training requirement added by Sen. Hutchinson, one of the chief negotiators.

That revision, which some members said had hostile intent, would have required concealed carry permit holders to obtain at least 16 hours of active shooter training designed by the Arkansas State Police. If no compromise is reached by Tuesday, Garner said he will support Collins-Smith’s National Rifle Association-backed bill in committee that removes any training requirement from the legislation. Gov. Asa. Hutchinson has requested that some training requirement is included in the bill.

After Monday’s deadline no other bill or proposals may be introduced in the House or Senate unless it is a sine die or adjournment resolution. If there is a resolution requesting permission to introduce a new bill by any member, it must get a two-thirds vote from each chamber.