The Senate sponsor of a hate crimes bill in Arkansas said the legislation could move “within the next week or two,” though sponsors and co-sponsors are discussing modifications and could propose a new bill.
Meanwhile, two senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee said Tuesday (Jan. 26) they remain firmly opposed to the bill and that it won’t pass the eight-member panel.
The sponsor of Senate Bill 3, Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, said sponsors have been meeting to discuss strategy and wanted to wait until they could succeed before trying to advance it.
“We’re continuing to talk to members, to build support, to try to look at a strategy to get it out of committee, and I think that we’re getting close, and I think you’ll see something move within the next week or two,” he said.
The House version, House Bill 1020, is sponsored by Rep. Fred Love, D-Mablevale.
Hendren said sponsors have discussed how to modify the bill and could introduce new legislation rather than try to amend the current versions.
“I’m still optimistic that we’ll pass a hate crimes bill, and it will be a meaningful bill, and a bill that does not leave the goals that we set in this bill behind,” he said. “So whether or not it’s this bill or another bill or an amended version of this bill, there’s a lot of political dynamics that play in how that works out.”
Arkansas is one of three states that does not have hate crimes legislation. The bills, a priority of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s, would create enhanced penalties for offenses committed because of the victim’s attributes in the following areas: race, color, religion, ethnicity, ancestry, national origin, homelessness, gender identity, sexual orientation, sex, disability, or service in the United States Armed Forces.
Persons convicted of a hate crime would be subject to 20% increases in their term of imprisonment, fines, or probation. The enhancement would not exceed 20% if the crime were based on multiple attributes.
The bill also makes it a Class C felony to aid or encourage a frivolous, groundless or malicious prosecution if the bill becomes a law. It also requires the attorney general to establish a repository to collect and analyze hate crimes data.
The bill faces an uphill climb in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the partisan makeup is seven Republicans and one Democrat. The Republicans include Hendren along with several lawmakers who have expressed opposition to the bill.
“There’s no question that getting this out of either end of the committee is our largest hurdle,” Hendren said. “I think once we get it to the floor, the chances of success are pretty good, but it’s one step at a time, so we’re looking at that step right now.”
Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he is a hard no. He said he could support hate crimes legislation someday, but he took issue with how this bill was rolled out publicly and about how changes haven’t been made. He predicted a “clear message sent” when the committee votes on the bill.
“I think you’ll see, once we defeat this bill, a good effort to put together meetings and hearings on what conservative, fair legislation like that could look (like) in the future,” he said.
Garner would prefer to define what crimes are included under the bill as well as limiting the attributes that could be included, saying he would prefer characteristics that are “immutable, something that couldn’t change from day to day.”
He said the notion that 47 states have hate crimes laws isn’t accurate because the various state laws are different. He called this proposal “extremist.” Instead, Senate Republicans will work on civil justice reform in the next few weeks, he said.
Another member of the committee, Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Ozark, said, “I’m a no, and there is no way it makes it out of Senate Judiciary.”
He agreed with Garner that hate crimes won’t pass this session.
“I think there is a way to draft hate crimes legislation that applies evenly to all groups, but this session is not the time,” he said. “I tried to work with Hendren on that, but I guess it wasn’t consistent with his plan. It would be hard to do anything now.”
Hendren said that if the Senate Judiciary Committee doesn’t pass a hate crimes bill, he would be open to pulling it out of committee by a vote of the full Senate.
Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, has expressed skepticism about the proposed hate crimes legislation but said he was open to listening to proposals.
In a text, he wrote, “If a person or group can figure out a way to work with Senate Judiciary on a satisfactory amendment, then I would say the bill would have a chance. Otherwise, I am not optimistic that it will or can gain passage.”
The numbers are more favorable in the House Judiciary Committee, where Democrats occupy nine of the committee’s 20 seats.
Senate Bill 3 has three co-sponsors in the Senate and 16 in the House, but most are Democrats in a Legislature where three-fourths of the members are Republicans. The Senate cosponsors are Sens. David Wallace, R-Leachville; Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock; and Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock. Thirteen of the co-sponsors in the House are Democrats. The House version also has two additional Republican sponsors.