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A look inside the evolution of an Arkansas FOIA bill

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks at FOIA bill signing event.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks at a bill signing event on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023.

A bill to make changes to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act was signed into law by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders last week. But the final bill isn't what the governor initially had in mind.

In a surprise announcement the week before, Gov. Sanders called a special session of the Arkansas Legislature, giving lawmakers and the public just three days’ notice. On the agenda was a bill to roll back the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act or FOIA.

The state law has been mostly unchanged since it was signed in 1967, and remains one of the strongest in the country. Broadly speaking, FOIA allows Arkansas residents to access almost any record of government business.

Sanders said she’s received several death threats throughout her political career, and information about her personal security shouldn't be accessible to the public.

“Our current FOIA laws put me and my kids at risk,” she said. “We will update sections of the law, so that the sources and methods Arkansas State Police uses to protect me and my family outside of the Governor's Mansion are not subject to disclosure.”

But the initial draft of the bill to alter FOIA was far more broad than just exempting the governor's security information. The bill would have also shielded the public from knowing about the internal communications of most state employees.

For example, it would’ve been nearly impossible to find out which lobbyists are contacting a politician, or if a lawmaker was going for expensive dinners with donors.

In Arkansas, if someone successfully sues for a public document, the state has to recoup the cost. The initial draft of the bill would have gutted this mechanism, limiting Arkansans’ ability to pay for FOIA lawsuits.

All of this came after attorney and blogger Matt Campbell sued the Arkansas State Police for access to the governor’s travel records. Although she didn’t mention Campbell by name, Sanders said the legislation was needed due to people “weaponizing FOIA.”

Campbell said he was flummoxed by the allegation that asking for past flight information would harm the governor's security.

“I don't have a time machine,” he said. “Nobody's going to go back and catch these flights in action. I don't see how knowing who was on a plane in the past could put anyone's life in danger.”

But, Sanders said this information allows the public to access “security patterns.”

“If they know you travel with two people versus four people or six people, and you take this route versus this one, or you fly specifically on this airline versus this one, you're putting that person in vulnerability," she said.

No bill had been submitted by the first day of the special session last Monday. Sanders spent that day trying to gin up support for a draft bill which ultimately faced bipartisan opposition. The legislature’s FOIA task force came out against the proposed bill, as did many local Republican groups.

Despite the pushback, Senate President Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, spent the week championing the governor's FOIA bill in the legislature. On Monday night, he announced his intention to hold public comment over a bill that did not yet exist.

“I hope by 6 o’clock we have a FOIA bill that well read across the desk and go to [the] State Agencies [committee],” he said.

Public commenters gathered in the committee room to speak on the bill at 6 p.m., but around an hour later, Hester said the meeting would not happen.

A bill was eventually filed just before 10 o'clock that night, this time leaving out the exemptions for all state employees and politicians and focusing instead on the governor's communications with members of her cabinet.

In committee, Hester said he had “lost the argument with his colleagues” over the more wide-reaching version of the bill, but still supported preventing the public from seeing the governor's communications with her cabinet secretaries.

“We want our government to work efficiently and fairly,” he said. “And when we do not have the ability for the free exchange of ideas, it hurts in the efficiency.”

Republican attorney Clint Lancaster said he would rather have a transparent government than an efficient government.

“I do think it’s important knowing who the governor's associating with when she is traveling,” he said. “If she is on a plane to Europe with Ron DeSantis, I would like to know that.”

Public comment was mostly negative with criticism lodged by Democrats and Republicans.

Eventually, on Wednesday, two identical bills appeared in a House and Senate committee. They only included FOIA exemptions pertaining to the governor's security which could include travel records. One of the few voices of opposition was Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville.

“My concern is that a governor could travel around with some big donor on the Arkansas State Police plane on the taxpayer's dime and taxpayers would never know,” she said.

The two bills passed quickly and were signed into law by Sanders the next day. When asked about the previous versions of the law, she gave this response.

“That's part of governing,” she said. “We got exactly what we really needed, and were not going to stop continuing to fight for more government efficacy and effectiveness.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.