While much of a legislative session can focus on the mundane business of running state government – such as budget bills and tax policy – hot button social issues tend to dominate the headlines.
In the 93rd Arkansas General Assembly, state lawmakers will consider a number of bills that will stir passionate debate ranging from gun regulation to abortion to hate crimes.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson has made a centerpiece of his last regular session agenda the passage of hate crimes legislation. Arkansas is one of three states that does not have a hate crimes law on the books. The measure would enhance penalties for those who commit crimes inspired by a person’s “race, color, religion, ethnicity, ancestry, national origin, homelessness, gender identity, sexual orientation, sex, disability, or service in United States Armed Forces.”
State Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, and Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville, filed the bill, SB 3, last November.
“Some of the members of the Judiciary committee on the Senate side made it clear they got in there to defeat hate crimes legislation and that’s one of the committees that is it has to go through and so that’s a challenge for us,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said on Friday.
Senate President Jimmy Hickey, Jr., R-Texarkana, said the hate crimes bill will have a “steep climb” in the State Senate if some provisions in the current version aren’t changed. How the bill evolves during the session will be the key as to whether it becomes law or not, he added.
A bill to ban abortions in the state, SB 6, has already been filed by Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway.
“The people of Arkansas have consistently supported policies and politicians that support protecting the lives of unborn children – this is why we are now scored as the most pro-life state in the nation. I have full confidence the Arkansas legislature will pass SB 6 and I welcome Governor Hutchinson to support the bill,” Rapert said.
This bill would create The Arkansas Unborn Child Protection Act, banning abortions except if it’s a medical emergency.
Gloria Pedro, a regional representative for Planned Parenthood, said SB 6 is “flawed and dangerous” legislation.
“… It is also an absurd attempt to demand the Supreme Court reconsider Roe v. Wade,” she said. “The legislature is separate from the courts to protect our freedoms and rights. Writing a bill that’s the equivalent of a demand letter to SCOTUS is not how the Constitution works. Decades of precedent have upheld the fundamental right to abortion, and courts have repeatedly struck down bans that were less extreme than this one.”
Another controversial issue is “stand your ground” legislation, a gun rights bill which would end the duty to retreat when using physical or deadly force. Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Berryville, is pushing for this once again after his efforts fell short in 2019. Ballinger’s bill, SB 24, would end the duty to retreat as long as the person is lawfully present, the aggressor is threatening to cause deadly or physical harm, and the person using the force is not the initial aggressor and didn’t provoke the situation. A person would not be able to stand their ground without the duty to retreat if it is during criminal or gang activity.
“Innocent victims defending themselves shouldn’t have the burden to prove whether or not they can retreat. They should have the ability if they’re where they’re supposed to be – doing what they should be doing – to have the right to defend themselves,” Ballinger said of the measure.
Kate Fletcher, a spokesperson with gun control advocacy group Moms Demand Action, said while you will not see a sea of red shirts at the state Capitol – due to the pandemic – her group’s members will continue to fight against Ballinger’s bill.
“There’s no place in Arkansas for this racist policy that encourages vigilantes to shoot first and ask questions later, especially following the recent events in Washington D.C. Arkansas’ self-defense law works – the only thing this unnecessary, deadly law would do is put Arkansans at greater risk of gun violence, especially Black people and other people of color,” Fletcher said.
Ballinger plans to run his bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday (Jan. 13) and is confident it will pass. That panel has a clear majority of supporters on it.
In the House Judiciary Committee, where the measure will likely be assigned, Democrats managed to land nine of the 20 seats, making that panel their best chance to block the legislation if there are any Republicans who don’t support it. The House Judiciary Committee is also likely to be a battleground for the hate crimes bill.
Editor’s note: Marine Glisovic is the senior political reporter for KATV.