With the Arkansas 2021 Legislative Session set to begin in just over a month, state lawmakers have already begun to file bills, effectively giving a preview of some of the issues that will be debated and voted on.
KUAR News spoke with Andrew DeMillo, Capitol Correspondent for the Little Rock bureau of the Associated Press to discuss the upcoming session and what topics that have already emerged as ones to pay attention to.
KUAR: What do you think are the major topics that the upcoming session is going to address this year?
DeMillo: "There’s still a lot of unknowns since we’re a little more than a month out, but we already have an idea what the top items are going to be. Clearly tax cuts are going to be a big point of discussion and debate in the session. The governor has laid out his budget proposal for the coming year. That includes $50 million in tax cuts, including a break for new residents.
Another issue is hate crimes legislation. The governor has made hate crimes legislation, which would be enhanced sentences for crimes that are committed against someone because of one of multiple factors: race, religion, sexual orientation... He’s made this a big part of his agenda and based on past years, this is going to be a tough bill to get through and one that we’re going to see a lot of pushback over.
Redistricting is going to be another big issue with the most recent census. This is congressional redistricting. So, watching for that, especially with Republicans in control of both chambers of the legislature, you could end up seeing some divisions within the party on how to redraw these lines and try to ensure that these seats remain in Republican control.
It’s also clear that abortion, which just about every session has been a big issue here, is going to be even more so, given the conservative shift on the U.S. Supreme Court…We’ve already seen one bill filed that would effectively ban nearly all abortions in the state. Given past years that we’ve seen, I don’t think that’s going to be the only one that comes up. I expect that there will be a lot of proposals that will be intended to kind of test where the courts and where the U.S. Supreme Court is right now on what they’ll allow states to do in terms of imposing new restrictions.
The big unknown about the session is healthcare. The Medicaid expansion that Arkansas has, has been a regular fight nearly every year since it was approved here, but it has always managed to get reauthorized, sometimes very narrowly. But this time we’ve got the bigger issue of what is the U.S. Supreme Court going to do with the Affordable Care Act. There’s still a case pending with them over a challenge to that law. What happens if SCOTUS strikes it down? Where does that leave Arkansas and where does that leave the thousands who are receiving coverage? And also where does that leave Arkansas’ budget? Depending on the timing of that and what happens with that ruling, that could be a decision that could really upend things in the session as well."
KUAR: What are some bills that you’ve already noted or seen? What are some bills to look out for?
DeMillo: "Hate crime legislation, that was one of the first bills that was filed during prefiling. That’s going to be one of the top ones to look for. We’ve seen the abortion restriction that I’ve mentioned that’d been filed…We’ve seen a proposal for tax relief for low and middle-income Arkansans that would be paid for with an increase in tobacco taxes. This is similar to legislation that passed a couple years ago in the Senate but stalled in the House.
Then we’ve kind of seen a hodgepodge of other bills that have been filed so far; even ones dealing with the desecration of the U.S. flag and monuments at the Capitol, a proposal dealing with creating a law enforcement integrity unit with state police. And so I think we’re going to see more of that, but we’re at least getting a sense from the first bills that are filed what the big issues are going to be just based on that pre-filing."
KUAR: Are there some topics or issues that didn’t pass last year that have returned, and are there some that you expect to return?
DeMillo: "I think we’ll see some similar tax cut proposals that have been tried in past years brought up again. The tax relief proposal I talked about includes [an] earned income tax credit, which is something that has been a big push, especially among Democrats in previous sessions. Given the governor’s push for additional tax relief, I’d expect that’s going to be one of the topics that’s going to be discussed.
One issue to watch out for will be the proposal dealing with Arkansas’ flag. There was a proposal a couple years ago that would have changed the designation for one of the stars on Arkansas’ flag that basically commemorates the Confederacy. That’s a proposal that has drawn pushback from some folks. The governor after this last regular session, he actually said he supported that idea. So it’ll be interesting if this does come up to see…how public is he on this issue and does that help get this through more."
KUAR: What will the session look like on a logistical basis? How will COVID-19 change how the session goes and kind of the focus of the session?
DeMillo: "Logistically, I think we’re already seeing some of this. We’ve seen plexiglass that’s been set up in the chambers and in some of the committee rooms. I think we’ll likely see an effort to try to keep the session shorter and try to keep some meetings shorter so there’s less of an interaction. I think we’ve already seen why there’s the concern over that. Arkansas has had one of the biggest outbreaks in the state legislature of COVID[-19]. And most of those cases occurred after the start of budget hearings, which is a more limited number of lawmakers. What happens when you bring 135 lawmakers into a limited space like the Capitol? The House is not going to be meeting in the basketball arena…So I think they’re going to have to figure out the challenge of doing that.
One of the big issues still is what are the House and Senate going to do in terms of mask rules for lawmakers. We’ve already seen one proposal that was brought up in the Senate that would have not just imposed a mask rule, but also would have imposed a penalty. If you didn’t wear your mask, you could potentially lose your per diem. There was some resistance to that and this is similar to what we’re seeing in capitols around the country of how do you enforce this, how do you do this in legislative chambers? So I think that’s going to be logistically one of the things to see is…how are they going to police themselves?
Policy-wise, I think [what] will be interesting to watch is we’ve seen Gov. Hutchinson, he’s faced some resistance from members of his own party over the state’s restrictions, over the mask mandate, even had a group of Republican lawmakers who sued, trying to overturn these restrictions. The issue to watch is, does this turn into a legislative push? Is there going to be some effort to have more of a legislative say in these restrictions either during this pandemic or in the future… Also, are there going to be lessons learned from how the state handled the pandemic that are going to turn into changes in the way the state responds to emergencies in the future?"
KUAR: You mentioned tax cuts and you mentioned the hate crime bill, has the governor talked about what his other goals are? Will that be more revealed during his "state of the state" address?
DeMillo: "I think you’ll see some more of that in the state of the state address and as we get closer to the session. This is his last regular session, so it really is kind of his last chance to really try to cement his legacy as governor…So I think you’ll see a lot more on the agenda in terms of what he wants to do and I think that’s why you’ve seen him play such a big role in advocating for hate crimes legislation. Arkansas is among just a handful of states that doesn’t have a hate crimes law and so he’s been talking about this issue for more than a year now. And he’s also portraying his tax cut proposal, particularly the cuts for new residents as kind of laying the groundwork for cutting the top rate. So I think you’re going to see an agenda geared towards things that are longer term and kind of a recognition that this is going to be, kind of the a last chance to do a lot.
KUAR: This is [Gov. Hutchinson’s] last session. Does the governor’s input really matter?
DeMillo: "I think it does. I think there are also challenges too. He clearly, based on polling has been generally popular in the state, but he’s also dealing with resistance from those within his party on multiple fronts, like we talked about with COVID restrictions and I think you’ll see that in some of his other proposals including hate crimes. Hate crimes legislation, I think you’re going to see some opposition, especially on the right over that so he’s going to have to deal with that. And he’s also going to be competing for attention somewhat now, with a 2022 governor’s race that’s heating up. You already have at least two candidates running for the Republican nomination. That may change and grow even further during the session, so trying to keep the focus on what’s happening now rather than a race that’s going to be nearly two years away. And also he’s dealing with this at the same time that the state’s in the midst of a pandemic that has upended everything and could continue to do so."
KUAR: Each session the lawmakers pass what they want to see for ballot initiatives for the next general election. So as far as the next ballot initiatives, which ones do you think will turn up?
DeMillo: "It’s still pretty early. Based on past years, I would not be surprised to see some renewed effort to address tort reform in some way, either directly or indirectly, mainly because that has been such a big desire of business groups and of Republicans. The question is, how do you do that in a way that can withstand challenges before the court? And so that’s going to be one of the things they’re going to have to figure out.
Also would not be surprised to see some renewed efforts to put new limits on the ballot initiative process. The question is again, how do you do that in a way that can pass court muster and can get through? But given the interest that we saw from groups on the right, from business groups the last time around that was tried with ballot restrictions, I would not be surprised to see that attempted again in some way, but maybe not the same way that we saw last time around."
KUAR: With state Republicans emerging with a supermajority in both chambers after the election, do you think there’s going to be still a lot of cooperation?
DeMillo: "I think in certain areas you’ll see it. I think the hate crimes legislation is one example where we’ve seen an interesting coalition of Republicans and Democratic legislators on this and I think you’ll see some working together on that. Earned income tax credit may be another area. That’s going to be the challenge for Democrats is really trying to find the way to have a say despite being the minority party right now."
KUAR: What do you think are the strategies for both parties this coming session?
DeMillo: "I think for Democrats, what you’ll see is them focusing on areas where they can have a say, maybe even areas where they can work with Republicans. Also, based on past years, I would not be surprised to see them highlighting areas where they don’t think Republicans are representing people in the state well, or representing working families. So, I think you’ll see a focus on that. I think for Republicans, the challenge is going to be getting their agenda through, getting their top items through despite the divisions within the party that we’ve already seen some hints of. That’s kind of the challenge that you have when you have the majority is you’re no longer dealing with fights between parties, you’re dealing with fights within the party itself."