State lawmakers should pass a newly filed hate crimes bill and Arkansas employers need to fully embrace vaccines for their workers. That’s the blunt assessment from Randy Zook, CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Arkansas.
Zook, who appeared on this week’s TV edition of Talk Business & Politics, said despite reluctance of legislative leadership to label SB 622 as a hate crimes measure, that’s what the bill effectively is.
“If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. That would be my answer to that. Yes, it is [a hate crimes bill], and yes it does. It’s an Arkansas solution to a tough challenge and it’s appropriate,” Zook said.
SB 622 creates an “aggravating circumstance” provision that will require a criminal defendant to serve at least 80% of his or her sentence if certain motivations led to the crime. For crimes such as murder, battery, arson or terroristic threatening, the criteria include if the defendant purposefully selected the victim because the victim was a member of or was associated with a recognizable and identifiable group or class who share mental, physical, biological, cultural, political, or religious beliefs or characteristics, per the bill.
Zook agrees with House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, that the bill goes further than other states. Despite criticism from the Anti-Defamation League and other groups that the legislation is too broad, Zook said that criticism is irrelevant to the debate.
“I’m not in the least bit motivated by or concerned about the credit or lack thereof from the Anti-Defamation League. I’m concerned about Arkansas businesses, Arkansas people, Arkansas employers. This bill is more comprehensive than that cookie-cutter approach that the ADL would have had us follow, and it’s more comprehensive and it’s more severe,” he said.
The 93rd Arkansas General Assembly has drifted often into debates over cultural issues such as abortion, guns, and transgender restrictions. National press outlets have portrayed the debates in Arkansas negatively. Zook said passing hate crimes legislation will help reverse some of the negative PR.
“It’s essential that Arkansas not be labeled as sort of a pariah state for failing to have something like this in place, and that gets to the point of recruiting talent, whether you’re recruiting talent for a corporation, for a business, for a nonprofit, for a basketball or football team, for whatever you’re recruiting talent to do,” he said. “We’ve got to be an attractive place where people are confident that they and their families are protected by law.”
Zook added that he believed many of the measures that have garnered national negative attention will be reversed by the courts, and he said Arkansas is not alone in its legislative pursuits of such legislation.
“The only good news in that general subject there is the fact that we’re in good company. This is happening in lots of other states. There’s a sort of a mood that’s working its way across the country, so I don’t think we’re going to be distinguished as being the only place where that’s going on,” he said. “So I’m not terribly concerned about it. Frankly, I think some of them are going to be found unconstitutional… It’s just going to be a court fight, and those solutions will work themselves out.”
When asked if it is bad for business to be under national scrutiny on divisive social and cultural issues, Zook added, “I think it’s bad for business anytime we look less than inviting, and attractive, and compelling as a place to live and invest, and raise a family.”
The State Chamber has partnered with Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield, the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care and other health care groups to push for more vaccinations for workers across the state. The chamber’s connection with employers – which polling shows is a trusted source for health information – led to the “Vaccinate the State” initiative. The goal is to get as many workers vaccinated as possible.
“We need to encourage people to do that [get vaccinated] because that’s the way to whip this thing. And that’s what’s going to open this economy back up, as we’re seeing,” Zook said.
He said the chamber opposes a measure that would restrict employers from mandating their employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine shot. Zook said it should be up to employers, not legislators, to make that decision for themselves and their businesses.
“We think it’s a reasonable employer right, and we oppose it because this kind of runs rough shod over employers’ rights to determine how their businesses are going to operate. If I ran a restaurant, for instance, I would definitely require my employees to get the shot because I want my customers or potential customers to feel safe coming into that facility,” he said.
You can watch Zook’s full interview in the video below.