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FOIA legislation, tax cuts gain final approval as special session winds down

Steps leading up the Arkansas Senate chamber.
Jacob Kauffman
Little Rock Public Radio
Steps leading up to the Arkansas Senate chamber are seen in this file photo.

Arkansas lawmakers have given final approval to new tax cuts and restrictions on the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

The legislature informally adjourned Thursday morning, less than a week after Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders called lawmakers into a special session.

One of the bills approved by the House and Senate Thursday exempts security information relating to any of the state’s constitutional officeholders from the Freedom of Information Act. While it is weaker than previous drafts considered by lawmakers earlier this week, Rep. Andrew Collins, D-Little Rock, said the bill still goes too far.

“Anything which would endanger the safety and security of the governor should be exempt. But another category of records will also be produced in the course of all the work the State Police is doing, and this category of records if released would have no impact on the safety and security of the governor,” Collins said. “So what’s the rationale for keeping those secret from the public?”

Rep. Marcus Richmond, R-Harvey, said barring the public from accessing information about the governor’s personal security details is needed to ensure her safety.

“So I would ask you to grow a pair and vote for this bill so that we can, in fact, protect the governor and quit coming up with excuses and kicking the can down the road until it falls off,” he said. “You only get one chance when it comes to security. There’s no do-overs.”

Richmond later apologized to House members for his phrasing. Two identical versions of the FOIA bill passed the House on a party-line vote of 82 to 15, with no Democrats supporting the measure.

Lawmakers on Thursday also passed bills prohibiting COVID-19 vaccine mandates for state employees, and new cuts to the state’s personal and corporate income tax rates. Rep. Denise Garner, D-Fayetteville, spoke on the House floor against the legislation which cuts the state’s top marginal income tax rate to 4.4%.

“We’ve already cut income tax three times in the past 13 months, with a budget cost of $1.6 billion. And that’s just the personal income tax, that’s not the corporate cuts,” Garner said. “Now we’re adding an additional $250 million burden to the budget at a time when we have critical, unfunded programs and uncertainty about the future cost of LEARNS and the other bills that we passed last session.”

Rep. Aaron Pilkington, R-Knoxville, said the new tax cuts seek to make Arkansas more competitive with other states which have already done away with income tax entirely.

“We have two states that border us, Tennessee and Texas, that have zero income taxes,” Pilkington said. “How can we compete for workers, for businesses, for economic development projects in this state when we have a tax rate that makes it hard to attract those workers they desperately need?”

Gov. Sarah Sanders has voiced support for phasing out Arkansas’ income tax altogether. The latest round of cuts to the personal and corporate income tax is expected to reduce state revenue by around $250 million.

Daniel Breen is News Director for Little Rock Public Radio.