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The 2021 Arkansas Legislative Session: A Recap And Reflection

Arkansas Capitol
Michael Hibblen

The 2021 session of the Arkansas General Assembly adjourned last week. Lawmakers will return in the fall to consider redistricting and any unfinished business.

The session included debate on many cultural issues as well as a power struggle between Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the Republican-controlled House and Senate on matters like executive orders for the COVID-19 pandemic.

KUAR’s politics and state government reporter Sarah Kellogg covered the session over the last four months and spoke with KUAR’s Michael Hibblen offering here analysis. Below are edited highlights of their conversation.

MICHAEL HIBBLEN: First, what were your key takeaway. Was this an effective session?

SARAH KELLOGG: Depends on what you mean by effective. I think one party would say it was incredibly effective. I would say one party probably didn't find it effective. With a Republican supermajority in both chambers, a lot of times they had their run on what they wanted to pass. And so I think that for them, I feel like it was effective and I think that there's a lot of things that they will go back home to their constituents and tout. I think a lot of Democrats are going to try to figure out how they can maybe fight some of these bills in the courts and are looking at finding ways to maybe make some bills better in the future sessions.

HIBBLEN: How do you think Governor Hutchinson came out looking? It seemed he got most of the priorities he laid out at the beginning of the session addressed in some form or another.

KELLOGG: Yeah, at the beginning of the session, he did a Q&A with journalists about his goals and some of the ones he did outline did pass. And he mentioned teacher pay, that was accomplished and is different from the bill that happened two years ago that very clearly raised the minimum pay for teachers on a statewide basis so that it would reach $36,000 for the 2022-2023. Under the bill passed this session, it uses a formula for schools identified by the state as having an average pay rate below their targeted average and it raises those payments and would allow those schools to receive equalization payments. The statewide target the bill lists was $51,822, so that's one of the goals that he wanted.

Then another goal he mentioned was the increase of broadband support in the state, which the legislature did pass several versions of. He signed a bill that allows the state to support improvement districts to go into a public private partnership.

I would say the goal that Hutchison thought would be the hardest to pass, and I would say that he was correct, was the creation of hate crimes legislation in the state. Arkansas was one of only a handful of states that doesn't have a law that gives sentence enhancements or partial penalties to those convicted of crimes that target a person or a group due to an aspect of their identity. That could be their race, that could be their sexual orientation, that could be their religion, their gender identity. And so there was an original bill which had bipartisan support, and that was filed even before the session began, in November, I believe. But it didn't get any momentum, and so there was another bill which does create sentence enhancements and that Arkansans convicted of a certain violent crime would have to serve at least 80% of their sentence before the possibility of parole release if it is proven that they targeted someone based on a series of traits. But this bill doesn't specifically list the classes that would be protected, such as gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, color, national origin. So because it didn't list that many components of hate crimes legislation, some said it was not hate crimes legislation. Instead, it was labeled as a class protection bill by some. But the governor was in support of it and it ultimately passed. It's the question of whether or not they'll try to push it and make it more specific in the future.

HIBBLEN: And that bill was an example of one of the disagreements he got into with members of his own party, vetoing some bills saying they went too far. And really, this session we saw a difference of opinion with he and other Republicans about what state government should look like or should do.

KELLOGG: Yeah, I think the two to bring up involved gun legislation. There were two main gun bills I feel like they went through, which was Stand Your Ground, which was something that the governor reviewed but ultimately passed. But the one that he vetoed was the one which created the Arkansas Sovereignty Act. It prohibited Arkansas law enforcement from holding or enforcing any federal gun legislation and said that any acts from the U.S. government that infringe on the Second Amendment, past, present or future, would be void. And the governor vetoed that bill the Friday before the legislature ended. He vetoed the bill saying it was too extreme. You need the cooperation between the federal and state government. There were issues about some people with pending trials due to gun charges that would be released. And there were some issues concerning funding for the Game and Fish Commission. So there were these issues with this bill that he vetoed, and ultimately, what ended up being a marathon day was this bill addressing those issues. That bill was eventually passed in about 20 hours from being filed to being passed. The governor said he still thought it was extreme, but he wouldn't veto it.

I think the biggest disagreements came from a bill that was against trans individuals, in particular, transgender youth. Basically it does ban transgender youth under 18 from receiving medical care, if that's related to their transition. That could be hormones, that could be puberty blockers, even if you have parental consent. So the governor vetoed that; he called it too extreme, not what the Republican Party should be about, getting into the business between parents and their children in hospitals and getting into those businesses. That veto was overturned, but Hutchinson has stood by that decision. He wrote an op ed in The Washington Post about it, kind of saying this isn't the direction we need to be going to. Now, that isn't to say he didn't pass bills that still were discriminatory against the trans community. He did sign a bill that bans transgender women and girls from participating in school and collegiate sponsored women's sports. Arkansas is just one of many states that are passing a version of that bill. So I would say that's kind of one of the major disagreements with lawmakers. There were also power struggles.

HIBBLEN: What do you think about the overall tone of the bills, and in particular, the controversial items? You mentioned the transgender bills, or legislation proposed to prohibit some ideas on racism from being taught?

KELLOGG: Yeah, I think there's a lot to be said about collaboration between the parties and how I don't think what really happened much. In talking about the race the bill that you mentioned, there was a bill that did ultimately fail, but it would have given schools the ability to prohibit certain conversations about race from happening. And initially it was longer, it had stronger language, it wasn't as permissive. It was a little more like they can't teach this. Rep. Mark Lowery, received criticism that he did not reach across the aisle and talk to really many, if any, lawmakers of color about this, and so he took the bill down and amended it and worked next to Rep. Reginald Murdock. So they worked together and they made a lot of changes to the bill. And Murdock, though he didn't vote on the bill, he was listed not voting, he did speak in favor of it. And then he talked about the process and he said that, you know, this is what it should be, collaborating and finding ways to compromise. He said, to quote him, he said he saw some very mean-spirited bills

HIBBLEN: And there were some bills that were introduced that were essentially cookie cutter legislation that had also been introduced elsewhere in the country.

KELLOGG: Yeah, the trans sports bill is one that was definitely copied in other places. That's the one that I think stands out the most. And other states are definitely passing it. Stand Your Ground, I don't know what version it was, but that was something that's been seen and moved around.

There was a lot of voting legislation that went through. I would say that's another category. There is a bill that kind of modified and made stricter scrutiny of absentee voting. You have to have the same signature on your voter registration from how many years ago to the one that you had on your application. So that could lead to you not getting an absentee voting application. And then the big [one] I would say was one that banned early voting the Monday before an Election Day. And that's been around since, I'm an Arkansas transplant, but from listening, that has apparently been in place since the ‘90s. And so it would change this 20 years or more of having this Monday before Election Day for early voting. It was kind of portrayed by advocates [for the bill] as a way to give poll workers a break, and then people against it basically said, you know, this is voter suppression because it will make it harder to vote. And so that ultimately failed. It failed three times in the Senate committee. It failed in the House committee, eventually made it to the House floor on the final day of the legislature, but ultimately did not pass it. It would have taken about 10, 11 votes to switch over. So I would say that people who were there, there was a protest that day about that bill, I'm sure they left very happy that it was defeated.

HIBBLEN: And finally, this was your first session to completely focus on what was happening every day in the legislature in KUAR recently-created political reporter position. You've covered the Missouri legislature while in college. Did anything unique about Arkansas stick out to you?

KELLOGG: Yes. So this is technically my second session, but this is my first time covering it full time. And I think the thing that I noticed the most, and I think what I'm interested in, is the power dynamics. Something that I noticed a lot is that the governor, in his veto power, does not have a lot of a veto power. It only takes a simple majority to override a veto, and when I learned that two years ago, my jaw almost dropped. It seems like it's a very low threshold to overturn his veto. And so that's one of the main things I noticed when it comes to the legislature. But I think that I would say there were different categories of bills that went through. One of them was on the COVID response, but also on an imbalance of power, which the legislature felt like they didn't have a lot of power when it came to this emergency. The other faction, that was responding to what many lawmakers saw was an overreach of power by the executive branch. And another bill which the governor did sign gives the legislature more power when it comes to public emergencies, including public health emergencies. It allows the legislature to end them. And so there was kind of an unhappiness, I guess, with what they felt was an imbalance of power. So I think that there was kind of some discontent between that and sometimes the governor agreed and sometimes he didn't.

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.
Sarah Kellogg was a Politics and Government reporter for KUAR from November 2018- August 2021.
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