The Arkansas Legislature is gearing up for its regular session at the beginning of the year, and many groups and organizations will be pushing changes in state laws. Family Council President Jerry Cox and Laura Kellams, NWA Director for Arkansas Advocates for Children & Families, discussed with Talk Business & Politics what their groups’ legislative priorities will be during the next session.
Arkansas is a pro-life state and Cox said he doesn’t think there will be any major changes to the state’s restrictive abortion laws. There might be a push to expand the law to allow for abortions in cases of rape or incest, but he doesn’t think there will be enough votes on that front. Few Republican lawmakers will want to deal with that issue in a primary, he added.
“It’s pretty much been taken care of,” Cox said of the state’s abortion laws.
There is one abortion-related issue he could see being addressed, however. A law might be passed to restrict businesses and organizations that make referrals for abortions, he said.
About half of all women who give birth in Arkansas receive Medicaid coverage and the system needs to be tweaked, Kellams said. When a newly expectant mother applies for Medicaid, she is bunched in with all the other applicants. Pregnant women need to be fast tracked, she said. Her organization also wants coverage extended for the mother one year after birth, not the typical 60 days.
“We need to get them that prenatal coverage as quickly as possible,” she said.
Governor-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders has said that a priority for her will be to improve the state’s education system, specifically reading scores. Kellams said one proven method of improving scores is after school and summer programs. Funding and expanding these programs could be a key to fulfilling Sanders’ goal, she said.
“The state hasn’t made an effort to invest in those programs,” she said.
Another problem the legislature will deal with is human trafficking. Arkansas is woefully behind other states when it comes to dealing with this problem, and Cox believes there is universal support among lawmakers to make changes.
“Arkansas gets an F when it comes to dealing with human trafficking,” he said.
Cox expects the statute of limitations for both criminal and civil offenses to be extended when it comes to human trafficking. He also thinks that businesses such as hotels or motels that “turn a blind eye” to these activities may be held more culpable.
Cox expects more funding to be allocated to businesses and organizations that aid mothers who are pregnant or have just given birth. He thinks that grants will be created for organizations that help provide housing, formula, diapers and other services and products utilized by mothers.
Librarians have been exempt from the state’s obscenity statutes but that could change during this session, he said. He said that libraries are publicly funded institutions and legislators may want to find a way to exercise more control over the content of the materials that are carried in libraries.
Finally, the Arkansas Commission on the Status of Women released a report last week that outlined problems for women in the state. One of the top problems listed was childcare.
Kellams said she was pleased that childcare was on the list. There needs to be coordination between public and private entities to tackle this problem, she said. The issue impacts business, the economy and has a direct impact on children’s development. Being exposed to better programs in early childhood will lead to higher test scores when those children get into regular school, she added.
You can watch Cox’s and Kellams’ interviews in the videos below.