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Watered-down FOIA bill advances in Arkansas Legislature

Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, left, and Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, chat after a meeting of the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. The committee approved a bill sponsored by Hester that would add an exemption to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. Tucker's vote in favor secured its passage.
John Sykes
Arkansas Advocate
Bills exempting the governor's security information from FOIA move forward in the Senate and a House Committee.

After two days of debate, the Arkansas Legislature advanced a bill restricting the Freedom of Information Act. The two identical bills will bar the public from having access to the governor's security information, which could include travel records. That also applies to other constitutional officers, like the lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state.

The bills are a watered-down version of previous legislation, which made more wide-sweeping cuts to the Arkansas FOIA law.

Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, presented the bill in a meeting of the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs committee, while Senate president Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, presented the bill in the same Senate committee.

“We appreciate the feedback we have gotten,” Hester said. He spent the beginning of the week advocating for a more far-reaching version of the bill.

“The democratic process worked out really well,” he said.

The bill will retroactively exempt the governor's security information from being subjected to FOIA. This means the law goes back to June of last year, during the administration of former Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, didn't the retroactive nature of the bill.

“I understand with the current governor, but the previous governor going retroactive. Yeah, I'm a little concerned about that,” he said.

At both meetings, Inspector General Allison Bragg testified in favor of the legislation. She says it's safe to keep security information about the Governor “indefinitely confidential.”

“The past patterns of law enforcement will predict the way they will keep the governor safe in the future,” she told members of the House committee.

Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville, joined some members of the public in supporting parts of the bill protecting the governor's security but did not think the public should be shielded from the governor’s flight records. She says that information wouldn’t affect the governor's safety, but would be too difficult for the public to access under the new legislation.

“If we consider things like citizens who travel on the Arkansas police plane as exempt from FOIA,” she said. “My concern is that a governor could travel around with some big donor, on the Arkansas police plane, on taxpayers' dime, and taxpayers would never know.”

The House bill moves to the full House for a vote Thursday morning. The Senate bill passed with only two lawmakers, Democratic Sens. Fred Love and Greg Leding, voting against it.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.
Daniel Breen is News Director of Little Rock Public Radio.