The Arkansas Legislature is usually relatively quiet on the national stage when policymakers convene every two years to govern.
The 93rd Arkansas General Assembly will not be remembered as such.
The legislative body, dominated by Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate, made national headlines for passing a broad range of laws aimed at socially conservative constituents. Bills passed include one that would all but outlaw abortions in the state, another that restricts transgender rights, and other bills that impacted everything from gun rights to religion.
At the same time other issues that used to rile controversy such as continued funding for the federal Medicaid expansion in the state, formerly referred to as Obamacare, was passed under a different name.
Many lawmakers agree that some of these laws will undoubtedly be challenged in court. Several NEA legislators — Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, Rep. Monte Hodges, D-Blytheville, and Rep. Joe Jett, R-Success — discussed these bills and other legislative accomplishments with Talk Business & Politics.
Rep. Jimmy Gazaway
Perhaps the most controversial bill passed, SB 6 (now Act 309), sailed through the state legislature. With 78 Republicans in the House and 27 in the Senate, the bill met little resistance in either chamber.
The bill only allows for an abortion if the mother’s life is at risk. Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed the bill into law, but voiced concerns about the lack of an allowance for abortions in the case of rape or incest. There has been optimism among social conservatives in the state that the bill, SB6 now Act 309, would eventually make it to the U.S. Supreme Court and challenge the Roe v. Wade decision. Gazaway said it’s possible, but he’s not sure if it will happen.
The three-term state representative believes a stay will be ordered against the law and it will face legal challenges. The American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood filed a suit in late May to stop the bill from taking effect later this summer.
When asked about the number of social issue laws that were passed by the legislature this session that will almost certainly be challenged in court and cost the taxpayers in legal fees, Gazaway said the legislature merely did its job. Officials are elected to serve their constituents and the laws have high approval ratings among most Arkansans. Legal precedents should always be considered when passing new legislation, but it’s up to the courts to determine legalities.
Gazaway said he’s proud of the many bills he sponsored. An attorney and former deputy prosecutor, Gazaway filed a slew of bills during the session that mostly dealt with civil and criminal court cases. He sponsored or co-sponsored about 100 separate bills.
“I ran as many bills as any member of the House. I was really busy,” he said.
Rep. Monte Hodges
Hodges, serving in his fifth term, said this was the most divisive legislature he’s been a part of.
The abortion bill essentially stripped away a woman’s reproductive rights, while another bill that allows a medical professional to refuse to give service based on a “personal bias” is just bad policy, he said.
There could be as many as 14 bills that were passed that will land the state in court. He doesn’t understand why a few of his fellow lawmakers willfully decided to waste taxpayer dollars and time to fight cases in court that will lose. It’s bad policy for state citizens and it will cost the state revenue and jobs with the business community, he believes.
“Historically, our legislature has been considered one of the most civil in the country,” Hodges said. “This session was completely partisan. I will never support bills that oppress people.”
Gov. Hutchinson tried to get an outright hate crimes bill passed, but his efforts were thwarted by fellow Republicans. Another bill, SB 622, that provides class protections in criminal cases was eventually passed and signed into law. The new law 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. Those 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.
Hodges said the bill doesn’t go far enough. Arkansas is one of three states without a hate crimes bill. Many of his colleagues remained mum about hate crimes legislation.
“To be silent is consent,” he said.
Hodges was pleased a bill that requires police officers to intervene if another officer is using excessive force was passed. He also supported continued Medicaid expansion in the state.
Rep. Joe Jett
Jett acknowledged there were a number of controversial laws that were passed, and they could mire the court in legal challenges. Jett, chairman of the House Revenue and Taxation committee, said he was mostly pleased with the bills that came out of his committee and became law.
One set up a new tax tribunal. The Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration (DFA) often served as “judge, jury, and executioner” when tax disputes arose with individual or business tax filers. State lawmakers have created an independent commission to arbitrate disputes. It’s independent of DFA and that will help improve transparency and fairness in the process, he added.
Several other bills forgave state taxes on PPP loans, unemployment benefits, and others doled during the pandemic, Jett said. Tax forgiveness for unemployed workers is important for people in pockets of Northeast Arkansas. Jobs are plentiful in many parts of the state and country, but several Northeast counties are struggling with business and population loss, and those on unemployment shouldn’t have to carry an extra state income tax burden, he added.
When asked about goals he didn’t accomplish this session, Jett said revamping the Arkansas Plant Board will be at the top of his agenda. He said his constituents, many of whom are farmers, think the board has become too political, especially when it comes to the controversial use of the herbicide dicamba.
Sen. Dan Sullivan
Sullivan said he was pleased with the laws passed during the session and he didn’t have any major issues with the bills that became law. One thing he was pleased with was the shift of power back from the executive branch to the legislature, he said.
Before the session started, Sullivan had been one of the main lawmakers opposed to Gov. Hutchinson’s unilateral emergency orders to deal with the pandemic. Legislation was passed to give the legislative branch more authority to intervene when emergency orders are passed.
“I think the legislature re-established a balance of power that our state constitution provides for,” he said.