Weekly Legislative Roundup
April 12-18, 2021
Gov. Asa Hutchinson suffers rare veto, legislative setbacks at State Capitol
With less than three weeks left before the 93rd Arkansas General Assembly adjourns, Gov. Asa Hutchinson suffered two rare legislative setbacks as he winds down his last legislative session as the state’s term-limited Republican governor.
On Tuesday (April 6), Arkansas’ Republican supermajority in the House and Senate overruled Hutchinson’s veto of legislation that would ban gender confirming treatments and surgery for transgender youth. Arkansas is now the first state to enact such a law that would halt local doctors from providing gender confirming hormone treatment, puberty blockers or surgery to anyone under 18 years old, or from referring them to other providers for the treatment.
Known as the Arkansas Save Adolescents from Experimentation (SAFE) Act, House Bill 1570 would prevent physicians from performing the procedures. It also would ban the use of public funds or the providing of insurance coverage for them.
On Tuesday, the Arkansas House voted to overturn Hutchinson’s veto by a vote of 71-24 with three Republicans voting against the override. In the State Senate, the veto was turned back by 25-8. The chamber’s seven Democrats voted against the override along with Independent Sen. Jim Hendren, the governor’s nephew.
Hutchinson earlier vetoed HB 1570 on Monday calling it “government overreach.” The story has thrust the Arkansas governor and legislature into the national spotlight as more than 20 states consider similar bans against the transgender community.
On March 25, Hutchinson signed a law banning transgender women and girls from competing in school sports teams consistent with their gender identity. That law, which covers high school and collegiate sports, makes Arkansas the second state to approve such a restriction so far this year along with Mississippi.
Opponents of such legislation are calling on corporations to speak out against the Arkansas legislature and boycott the state’s tourism industry. Last week, the Wisconsin-based Revolution Cycles Club announced they would be withdrawing from the 2022 UCI Cyclocross Championships in Fayetteville. In their statement, the Wisconsin bicycle club said it was taking the initiative and stand up for the rights of transgender Americans.
Another Hutchinson-backed bill was also defeated on Wednesday after the Arkansas Senate Judiciary Committee voted down SB 3, the original hate crimes bill that was filed as part of the governor’s agenda after the session began on Jan. 11. Hutchinson’s bill never received a second to vote it out of committee.
According to governor’s office and others SB 3 supporters, Arkansas is one of three states without a hate crimes law. The Arkansas Senate is now set to push an alternative hate crimes legislation adopted by the same Judiciary Committee on Monday.
Senate Bill 622 by Senate President Rep. Jimmy Hickey of Texarkana would create an “aggravating circumstance” provision that will require a criminal defendant to serve at least 80% of his or her sentence if certain motivations led to the crime. For crimes such as murder, battery, arson or terroristic threatening, the criteria include if the defendant purposefully selected the victim because the victim was a member of or was associated with a recognizable and identifiable group or class who share mental, physical, biological, cultural, political, or religious beliefs or characteristics.
During the committee debate, Hendren asked Hickey, his successor, to clarify whether SB 622 was a hate crimes bill. That bill, which is also supported by the governor, received a “do-pass” recommendation from the committee and was late approved on the Senate floor on Wednesday by vote of 22-7 and five senators not participating. It now goes to the House Judiciary committee for consideration next week.
Also, House Bill 1563, which would require landlords to meet minimum rental housing standards and create a simple eviction procedure guaranteeing a hearing to both landlord and tenant, also appears to have stalled again in committee for another legislative session. The House Insurance & Commerce Committee gave the bill a do-pass recommendation more than a month ago, but sponsor Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, has yet to advance it to the House floor.
According to Lynn Foster, a retired UA Little Rock Law School professor, Arkansas is the only state in the U.S. where renters essentially do not have any rights and can go to jail for not paying rent. Under current Arkansas law, the landlord of a tenant who is one day late on rent may order the tenant to vacate the premises within 10 days.
If the tenant fails to do so, they are guilty of a separate misdemeanor offense for each day they fail to vacate the premises following the expiration of the 10-day notice and must pay a fine of up to $25 per day or offense.
Among many things, HB1563 would have required all residential rental properties to be structurally sound and have working locks, plumbing, electricity and heat, along with a few other basic living standards. Similar bills have failed to pass the several past legislative sessions due to opposition from the Arkansas Realtors Association.
As of April 8, more than 600 bills have been signed into law since the session began on Jan. 11. The legislature voted last month to extend the 2021 session until April 30, and then to recess for an extended period rather than to adjourn rather than sine die.
The legislature will have to come back to Little Rock later in 2021 to redraw the boundaries of the state’s four Congressional districts once new population data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau is completed. By law, the decennial census was supposed to be completed and delivered to the president and Congress by the end of 2020. However, the COVID-19 pandemic caused delays in counting and available. canvassing that pushed back the date for census information to be completed to Sept 30.
On Wednesday, the Arkansas House passed the following:
SB593-This bill temporarily changes the current deadline for filing and paying state income tax to May 17. This aligns with the recent extension issued for filing federal income tax.
HB1794-This bill creates the Licensed Practical Nurse Pathway Pilot Program. It states that the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, in consultation with the Division of Higher Education, shall establish and implement a program in which high school students may enroll in undergraduate courses required to obtain a diploma or certificate of completion as a licensed practical nurse by the date on which the public-school student graduates or within a reasonable frame of time after the public-school student graduates.
HB1701-This bill states that a teacher of a K-12 science class at a public school or open-enrollment public charter school may teach creationism as a theory of how the earth came to exist.
HB1704-This bill states that a municipality or county shall not restrict, tax, prohibit, or otherwise regulate the use or sale of auxiliary containers. Auxiliary containers include bags, cups, containers, bottles, or other packaging.
SB584-This bill establishes procedures and funding requirements for the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery. It would require lottery proceeds beginning July 1 to be placed in a fund. That fund would then be used to pay scholarships for the 2022-2023 school year in advance. The bill outlines priorities for scholarships should the proceeds not be sufficient for the scholarships requested.
HB1557-This bill requires electric utilities to have an emergency plan in place during certain weather events and to notify local governments of certain emergency measures.
The legislature has approved a broad reform of the laws governing water providers, a measure that sponsors have been working on for the past four years. Many of the provisions in Senate Bill 386, now Act 605 of 2021, are the result of a task force that investigated the financial status of water systems in Arkansas, as well as the condition of their infrastructure.
The task force’s findings were surprising. For example, an estimated 85% of the systems are “upside down” financially. In 2017 a national organization of civil engineers rated the system of Arkansas water providers with a D plus, in part because of the deteriorating state of pipes and distribution lines.
In addition to the safety factor, lack of reliable water service is a potential barrier to economic development. The need to upgrade our water systems was highlighted recently when hundreds of thousands of Texas residents went without water due to freezing temperatures.
Act 605 designates the state Natural Resources Commission and the Health Departments as the leading state agencies with oversight over the entire state’s water distribution. It also defines when a local system is in fiscal distress. It requires all systems to conduct a fiscal audit every five years to accurately determine the true cost of operating the system, including the cost of long-term maintenance and debt service. Systems must set rates high enough to meet those costs.
The new law signed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson on March 31 requires a majority of the board members of a water provider to take at least eight hours of training. If they don’t do so the system would face penalties.
Under Senate Bill 584 sponsored by Hickey, the Senate also approved a major reform of the lottery scholarship system. The legislation, which was approved by the House on April 7 and now heads to the governor’s desk to be enacted into law, looks to ensure the long-term financial stability of lottery scholarships, so that families can budget for higher education with greater certainty.
Among many things, it prioritizes which scholarship programs will be funded and sets a deadline for the introduction of any future legislation that would add scholarship programs. They would have to be filed during the first month of the legislative session to give lawmakers sufficient time to gauge their fiscal impact.
Bills that would change eligibility requirements also would have to be filed by the deadline, because they would change the number of students who qualify for a scholarship and thus those bills have a fiscal impact on the lottery scholarship program.
For the first six months of the current fiscal year, the state lottery has generated about $46.7 million for college scholarships. In a typical year, about 30,000 students receive a scholarship.