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Capitol Access is an online column by Jacob Kauffman. His column aims to give people unique insights into the Arkansas legislative session.

Unemployment Divides Arkansas Senate


On Monday the Arkansas Senate voted up two pieces of legislation regulating unemployment insurance. Senator Jeremy Hutchinson (R) sponsored SB 38 which requires two random drug screenings of a sample population of recipients of unemployment benefits at the first and thirteenth week of payments. SB 875, sponsored by Bart Hester (R), lowered the average weekly wage received by those on unemployment by one hundred dollars.

Senator Hutchinson, of Benton, contended that the randomized nature of the drug screening will be a cost-efficient means of deterrence. Hutchinson estimated the legislation would cost the state $30,000 a year. On the floor he closed for his bill by stating, “If you can’t pass a drug test, then you aren’t actively seeking employment.”

The Democratic opposition remained silent on SB 38 but was prepared to make themselves heard two bills later when they picked up SB 875.

Senator Bart Hester, of Cave Springs, argued the legislation was an issue of fairness and a matter of creating incentives that lead to greater job search intensity. Hester noted that Arkansas’ unemployment benefit rate of 66% is high for the region and above federal recommendations. This legislation brings the benefit rate down to 60% of income when employed, which is still higher than surrounding states.

Hester’s remarks were followed by a rare oratorical display that involved half of the Senate’s Democrats. Senator Linda Chesterfield (D) expressed pride at having higher benefit rates than neighboring states. Chesterfield went on at length that the country was experiencing historically weak economic times and asked, “At this delicate time we’d say, you can’t have what you’ve been getting?”

Republican Senator Jim Hendren, of Gravette, argued that this was an issue of “long term solvency” made more critical by a federal budget that is a “fiscal mess.”

In an interesting twist, Senator David Burnett (D) rose and stated, “It was my stupid vote that got it here.” Late last week Burnett had asked the Senate to re-refer SB 875 to committee. He had signed the bill out of committee, but since then had read the legislation and found it to be different than what was described to him in committee. The motion to re-refer a bill to committee typically falls under a gentleman’s code in which members almost always acquiesce to the request. But last week Senator Burnett was not extended the courtesy by the Republican controlled chamber and the bill remained on the Senate calendar.

Senator Burnett lambasted the chamber on Monday, stating that anyone who voted for this should be “ashamed of themselves” and that “$100 less a week for a poor family is a horrible thing.” Burnett also used his time on the floor to criticize the passing of SB 38 by stating, “to imply that just because you are so low on the totem pole you might be a drug user, to imply that, before we give you the little bit of money we give is horrible.”

Senator Cheatham (D), who rarely speaks or votes before preliminarily tallies, rose to make his opposition to the bill clear. Cheatham recounted when a mill in Crossett laid off 350 workers, “these are hard working people without hardly any skills, unemployed at no fault of their own. Talking about wives, children, people who need to pay their mortgages, food, utilities.”

The debate on the pair of bills lasted nearly half an hour, which is comparatively lengthy for the Senate. SB 38, passed 25-5 and SB 875 narrowly passed with a vote of 19-12. SB 875 failed to garner the support of a single Democrat.