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Activists, lawmakers discuss goals for 2023 Arkansas legislative session

Daniel Breen
Democratic state Rep. Ashley Hudson of Little Rock (right) speaks alongside fellow state Rep. Fred Love, D-Little Rock, and Rebecca Zimmermann with Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

Despite a new Republican governor and expanded GOP supermajorities in the Arkansas House and Senate, Democrats say they remain hopeful ahead of the start of next year’s legislative session.

Lawmakers, activists and constituents met Tuesday for a policy summit hosted by the nonpartisan Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. Among the topics discussed was education, which is expected to be a key issue of the session which begins Jan. 9.

Liz Picone, interim executive director of the Arkansas Education Association, said her group is expecting to spend much of the session “playing defense.”

“You pay taxes in your community. When you don’t like your police department, can you go to the next community and say, ‘I want those policemen to take care of my neighborhood instead of these policemen,’ because they’re not doing a very good job? No, we have to work with what we have,” Picone said.

Governor-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders has said re-evaluating education funding and expanding school choice programs are priorities as she takes office. That includes voucher programs, which allow state dollars to pay for students to attend private schools.

Rep. Ashley Hudson, D-Little Rock, says that may not have uniform support, particularly among lawmakers from rural parts of the state which may not have alternatives to public school.

“What that does, of course just given the demographics, is that we are prioritizing predominantly white children, predominantly middle and upper-class children who likely had means to go to a private school," Hudson said. "We’re de-prioritizing Black and brown children in areas that are already underserved and underfunded.”

Hudson says she hopes to introduce legislation aimed at increasing retention rates among pregnant high schoolers, as well as new penalties for distracted drivers who cause accidents leading to injuries or deaths. There has also been bipartisan support for new pay raises for teachers, though no proposals have been introduced in the pre-filing period so far.

Republicans have said education and tax reform will be on their agenda for the session, with plans to eliminate the state’s income tax potentially leading to a loss in school funding. Former Arkansas Teacher of the Year Stacey McAdoo says more should be done to recruit diverse, high-quality educators.

In 2020, "40% of students were students of color, but only 12% of educators were educators of color… that number has increased, the last unofficial number that I saw said that 60% of our public schools are now with students of color,” McAdoo said. “Just two years ago, we had 68 school districts that did not employ one single teacher of color as a teacher of record. So we have a lot of work to do.”

Other presenters at Tuesday’s summit called for legislation that expands access to after-school programs, early childhood education, maternal healthcare and voting. Christian Adcock with Disability Rights Arkansas urged lawmakers to propose bills which would make working with disabled people a more attractive career choice.

“Our community services workforce is heading toward a crisis point in this state," Adcock said. "Right now, we need to look at creating sustainable income streams and making that work, which is hard work, paying more than a job at Hobby Lobby.”

Adcock says that, in turn, could help alleviate a backlog of disabled people currently waiting for services from the state. He also says more reforms are needed to help disabled people live more independent lives.

“The way benefits are structured encourages people with disabilities to live in a cycle of poverty. It’s incredibly hard to get savings without losing your benefits, you can’t make over a certain income threshold. So if you want people to be engaged members of their community… you can’t enforce poverty on them,” Adcock said.

In September, lawmakers voted to expand care to more than 3,000 Arkansans currently on a waiting list, though it could take up to three years for the changes to go into effect.

The relationship between the Governor’s Office and the legislature has been fraught at times, with Republican legislators taking aim at Gov. Asa Hutchinson over pandemic-related restrictions. Hutchinson, in turn, has voiced displeasure with, and even vetoed certain bills, only for lawmakers to later override the action. With a new governor taking office, Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday’s panel said it’s unclear what that new relationship will look like.

Rep. Fred Love of Little Rock, who is moving to the Senate next year, says he believes his fellow Democrats will be able to work with Sanders.

“I do think that there’s going to be opportunity. You have a new governor-elect, and I know that she comes in with an agenda, but that can’t be her total agenda. What we can do is find where the common ground is, and then let’s work on the common ground,” Love said.

Love says he expects discussions on tax policy and the state budget will feature prominently in the session. He said he hopes to introduce bills aimed at reforming the state’s foster care system and helping people being released from prison through reentry programs.

Daniel Breen is a Little Rock-based reporter, anchor and producer for KUAR.