Legislative session sees education, prison changes, but social issues dominate

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 2,940 views 

Arkansas lawmakers wrapped up their regular session business, minus a few formalities, on Friday (April 7) and will reconvene on Monday, May 1 to “sine die,” or officially adjourn.

The 94th Arkansas General Assembly passed major legislation, supported by Gov. Sarah Sanders, to change education from pre-K to college, overhaul sentencing guidelines on violent criminals and build a new state prison, and cut personal and corporate income taxes.

With Republican supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature, state lawmakers passed the governor’s LEARNS Act, which gave starting teachers a new base salary of $50,000 and veteran teachers a $2,000 bonus. The comprehensive measure also outlined a school choice program that will allow public school funds to follow students to other options, including a different public school than they are currently assigned, charter schools, private and parochial schools or home schools.

The LEARNS Act also prescribes new funding for school safety, transportation, reading literacy, tutoring, pre-Kindergarten and workforce training. Many of the details of the package are being flushed out through an upcoming rules and regulations process.

A bill to change the state’s school funding formula by Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, the former chairman of the House Education Committee, failed in the Arkansas Senate on the last day of the session.

On the criminal justice front, the major legislation was folded into the Protect Arkansas Act, which restructures sentencing for violent criminals to mandate serving 85% to 100% of their sentences. An offender who commits a new felony while released on parole would serve the remainder of their sentence plus a penalty. The legislative package also will develop new mental health programs and delay prison fine repayment to reduce recidivism and ease inmates’ reentry into society. An additional $20 million will be dedicated to recruit and retain correctional officers. The package would also create a new school for state troopers and provide $5 million for additional overtime pay. Sanders is expected to sign the bill into law this week.

Separately, legislators approved funding for a $330 million prison construction project to add 3,000 new beds to the system. Originally, Sanders said the state needed $470 million for the multi-year project. There was also an allocation for $200 million for a new State Crime Lab building.

In coordination with Gov. Sanders, legislators also signed off on individual and corporate income tax relief. The approved legislation will lower the state’s top individual income tax rate from 4.9% to 4.7% this year as well as lower the corporate income tax rate from 5.3% to 5.1%.

The 94th General Assembly only referred one constitutional amendment proposal to voters for the 2024 general election. They could have proposed three, but the one submitted would allow for students attending vocational and technical schools to qualify for lottery scholarship money.

“I’m proud of the work this General Assembly has accomplished for the people of Arkansas. We’ve prioritized education and public safety while also cutting taxes,” Speaker of the House Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, said on Friday via Twitter.

While the governor’s proposals will have a long-term impact on public policy, the session was dominated by myriad bills dealing with cultural and social issues ranging from transgender rights to book bans to social media regulation and ending affirmative action.

Education, sentencing and tax cut proposals sailed through the legislature in less than two weeks after being introduced, while “culture war” bills took months to debate.

Numerous bills throughout the session sought to address concerns over the LGBTQ community. Republicans pushed for laws that:

  • Allow healthcare professionals to be sued for medical practice for gender-affirming procedures;
  • Deny individuals using the restroom that aligns with their gender identity;
  • Ban teachers from calling students by their preferred pronouns unless the parent approves of the pronoun;
  • Would charge someone with a misdemeanor for refusing to or making an attempt to leave, if they are in the bathroom of the opposite sex while a child is present;
  • Bans drag shows from being performed on public property;
  • Create the Conscience Protection Act, which would allow for businesses whose religious exercise was “burdened” to sue the state.

A measure to end affirmative action in state government and public education failed late in the session after months of debate, while laws to regulate books offered in libraries, require parental consent for children’s access to social media, and limitations on state investments in companies with ESG (environmental, social and governance) policies were passed in the session’s final days.

GOP strategist Bill Vickery, principal with Capitol Advisors Group, said legislators are doing what their constituents want them to do.

“When somebody sees something that they feel like that they want to change, that’s what they’re elected to do. I mean, these folks that vote for these issues or support these issues, do we believe that they’re not popular back in their district? Do we believe that’s not what most of their constituents want them to go do?” He said. “My point is, I would, name the member that you think is going to be defeated in the next election cycle based on their voting record in this.”

Former Democratic State Sen. Joyce Elliott, founder of the voter advocacy group Get Loud Arkansas, said these issues were not at the center of last year’s elections.

“I will promise you this, nobody was elected because they were going to come to the capitol and help further a nanny state. That is not why they were elected,” she said. “We invested nothing in quality of life in this session. For example, we invested nothing in making sure people who don’t even have housing, people who don’t have a place to live, people who are still making wages that will not support their families. So those are the kind of things we need to be thinking about doing. Because every state – Texas, Missouri, New Jersey, Georgia – all have done what we know works from data, and we are not.”

You can watch Vickery and Elliott’s full conversation from this week’s Capitol View and Talk Business & Politics programs in the video below.