A year into a pandemic that stole jobs, lives and any sense of stability, Arkansans might have hoped for some help when lawmakers convened in January for the 93rd General Assembly. What they got was a kick in the face.
Untethered by any check or balance on their hefty Republican supermajority, extremist lawmakers spent their time belittling and attacking their own constituents. For transgender children, renters, would-be voters, pregnant women or public safety advocates, Arkansas senators and representatives refused aid, offering insults and punishments instead.
A few football fields to the right of Donald Trump himself, the leaders of this legislative session stuck it to Democrats any way they could. And with the 105-29 R-to-D ratio (plus one newly declared independent) there wasn’t much the Democrats could do about it. Republican lawmakers gleefully embraced unconstitutional bills on guns and abortion rights that they acknowledged will cost the state plenty in legal fees and will likely get bounced out of court. Spending an untold amount of our tax dollars is worth it if state senators get to bellow about states’ rights and “dead little babies,” apparently. But even after the ACLU notches inevitable wins to take unconstitutional laws out of play, plenty of damage will remain. Voting will be harder, getting shot to death will be easier and securing the right to reproductive health in Arkansas will be nearing close to impossible.
Shockingly, and to Arkansas’s enduring shame, children bled the most in the 2021 culture war. Transgender children absorbed repeated body blows from elected adults who dehumanized and disregarded them. Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville) called transgender children an “abomination” from the House well, which came to resemble the pulpit of a bad megachurch as lawmakers lined up there to defend their Christian bona fides and recite bastardized Bible verses as an excuse to exclude and abuse the least of these.
Rep. Nicole Clowney (D-Fayetteville) captured the theme of the session on March 10, an ordinary Wednesday at the Capitol. Having already passed a “Stand Your Ground” bill that will put Black lives in more danger, and having buried any hopes of meaningful hate crime legislation for victims targeted because of their race, ethnicity, religion or sex, Arkansas lawmakers turned their focus to the nonexistent scourge of transgender girls on school sports teams. No matter that the bill’s sponsor couldn’t point to a single instance of any problems caused by transgender student athletes, or even any instances of transgender children playing on school sports teams in Arkansas at all. Here was another chance for legislators to be cruel to a vulnerable group ill-equipped to fight back.
“So many people in this state need our help with housing, with jobs, with food,” Clowney said. “But we are again talking about another marginalized community and how we can make life harder for them.”
The answer to all is apparently ‘more guns’
State senators made their priorities known from the get-go, kicking off this year’s legislative session by passing a bill to allow Arkansans to kill anyone they feel threatened by, even if they could simply walk away instead. “Stand Your Ground” legislation, for years a priority for right-wing extremists at the Capitol, earned its blessing from state senators in the earliest days of the 2021 session. Opponents managed to snag the bill briefly on the House side when the diametrically opposed Second Amendment-rights group Gun Owners of Arkansas and gun safety advocates Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America inadvertently teamed up to defeat it. Gun Owners of Arkansas opposed the “Stand Your Ground” proposal because they said language in the bill created new restrictions on where and when they could carry weapons. Along with advocates for the homeless and people with mental illness, Moms Demand Action volunteers opposed the “Stand Your Ground” bill because similar laws enacted in other states leave a gory path of unjustified and often racially motivated homicides in their wakes. “Stand Your Ground” laws have not deterred crimes in states that adopted them. In fact, murder rates in many of those states actually increased. Proponents of a “Stand Your Ground” law in Arkansas have never been able to produce a case in which such a law would have saved a life, prevented a crime or kept someone who killed in self defense out of legal trouble.
Conservative Republican Sen. John Cooper successfully stonewalled efforts to pass a “Stand Your Ground” bill in Arkansas in 2019, but paid a price. Turning to their usual playbook, Arkansas Republicans retaliated by primarying Cooper and replacing him with an obedient NRA foot soldier. The Jonesboro state Senate seat now belongs to former Rep. Dan Sullivan. (Sullivan sought fame in 2020 by suing Governor Hutchinson over mask mandates, crowd limits and other emergency measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The case didn’t make it far before a judge tossed it out).
The governor signed the “Stand Your Ground” bill into law but qualified his signature with hopes that the legislature would counter the racist cloud by passing a hate crimes law to provide specific protections for commonly targeted groups. (Spoiler alert: It didn’t pan out.)
Emboldened by their early success, gun extremists at the Capitol in 2021 went on to muck up the session’s final days with squabbles, maneuvering and an unnecessarily dramatic midnight session to stick it to the feds. After the governor vetoed a sovereignty bill that would make federal gun laws unenforceable in the state and criminalize local law enforcement officers and prosecutors who deigned to cooperate with the feds, the zealots worked around the clock to push through an 11th hour compromise.
“Our constituents are scared to death, because of the campaign we just lived through a year ago, that they’re going to come after the one thing we hold dear and true in Arkansas, and that’s our guns,” Rep. Jeff Wardlaw (R-Hermitage) said while presenting his substitute sovereignty bill. “There’s nothing I care about more, other than my family, God and Jesus, than my guns. I got three gun safes in my house slam full of ’em. My truck’s outside in the parking lot with my windows probably busted in ’cause it’s full of ’em, too.”
Only federal gun laws enacted going forward under the Biden administration will be ignored here under the new bill, which both chambers adopted before heading out of town in the wee hours of April 28. The new bill appears to be equally as unconstitutional as the first one, and there’s little chance it will stand up in court. But we’re likely stuck with a new law allowing guns in parks.
Corporate welfare > public welfare
The legislature kept big-money interests at the top of the priority list. Corporate nursing home owners got a nice reprieve this session with a bill to relax regulations on care. They will no longer have to keep records to prove their floors are adequately staffed to care for residents. For the first time, nursing homes will be able to count non-nursing staff as required “direct-care staff.” And even though staffing requirements are relaxed significantly, the new law erases any financial penalties for failing to meet them.
Corporations notched another win with the class protection bill, aka the sham hate crimes bill, aka fake crimes bill. Arkansas Chamber of Commerce President Randy Zook crowed that this bill puts Arkansas in league with 47 states that have laws on the books providing enhanced protections for people of color, the LGBTQ community and other commonly targeted groups. Not true, say supporters of the original hate crimes bill filed this legislative session by Sens. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) and Jim Hendren (I-Gravette). The Elliott/Hendren bill, which would have provided meaningful protections in the form of enhanced penalties for criminals who targeted victims based on religion or immutable traits, was met with scorn by a legislative body that is 89% white and 76% male. Zook and others hoping to attract investment dollars to Arkansas might claim differently, but the bill lawmakers ultimately adopted is no hate crime law, and it does next to nothing for vulnerable groups.
Landlords also made out quite well during the 93d General Assembly, fending off efforts to force them to provide housing that won’t kill, sicken or maim. Renters and their advocates who came to the Capitol were met with hostility from legislators (many of them landlords themselves) who called them unclean and irresponsible and did little to hold abusive landlords to account. A landlord herself, Rep. Robin Lundstrum (R-Springdale) pushed back on a provision that would require landlords to provide extermination service, suggesting any pest problems renters encounter are their own fault. “I hate cockroaches,” she said, but “they only come when they’re invited.”
Republican Sen. Dismang of Beebe, another landlord, pushed a compromise bill that he touted as a starting point, even as he conceded it falls far short of what tenants hoped for. Pressure from landlords, realtors and legislator-landlords like Lundstrum and Senate leader Jimmy Hickey (R-Texarkana) resulted in a bill that still includes no requirements for landlords to provide pest control or even functioning smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Testimony from a grieving mother whose son died this year because his apartment lacked a carbon monoxide detector was apparently not enough to sway them. Lundstrum and company successfully argued against any such requirements, saying that tenants too often removed the batteries to put in their children’s toys.
Another victory for landlords came with the defeat of a bill that would end Arkansas’s status as the only state in the country to make a crime of failure to pay rent.
Arkansas’s reign as the worst state in the country for tenants remains secure.
Lessons learned and ignored
Rare good news from this session: K-12 public education will receive the largest funding increase in more than a decade. The Arkansas Constitution requires that the state adequately and equitably fund public schools; ahead of each regular session, the Bureau of Legislative Research prepares a detailed study with recommendations. In recent years, lawmakers have routinely approved less than recommended. But in 2019 legislators narrowly voted to hire an outside consultant to do a deeper dive into education funding, the first such study since 2003, and somewhat surprisingly lawmakers didn’t ignore the consultant’s findings. The funding increase wasn’t controversial, but Sen. Mark Johnson (R-Little Rock) proposed a referred constitutional amendment that would have gutted the adequacy funding requirements. It didn’t go anywhere, but it’s a sign that public education advocates will have to stay vigilant in coming years.
Lawmakers also overwhelmingly approved a measure to increase the median teacher pay by $2,000 over the next two years, from $49,822 to $51,822. This follows the General Assembly in 2019 voting up a plan pushed by Governor Hutchinson to gradually boost the minimum teacher salary from $31,800 to $36,000 by 2023. That’s all positive, but it could be largely undercut by proposed hikes in teacher insurance premiums. In a year when two dozen school personnel died of COVID-19, hundreds were sickened by the disease and all educators were faced with the stress of teaching in-person amid a pandemic, they are facing a 10% premium increase. The legislature could have taken action to avoid the rate hike and the state has plenty of money to do it, but lawmakers took no action.
In keeping with the state government’s antipathy toward the Little Rock School District, a new law sponsored by Sen. Bob Ballinger (R-Berryville) prohibits collective bargaining by public employees; it includes exemptions for police and fire departments, which means it’s largely aimed at preventing the Little Rock School District Board from again recognizing the Little Rock Education Association during contract negotiations once (if) the district is fully released from state control. The LRSD has been under the state’s thumb for more than six years. A bill from several Little Rock Democrats that would have set a hard five-year cap for a district to remain under state control failed to advance out of committee.
The teaching of creationism would have been allowed thanks to legislation from Republican Rep. Bentley of Perryville. “Why would we do this when the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that it’s illegal?” Rep. Deborah Ferguson (D-West Memphis) asked her colleagues. Bentley suggested high court justices might change their minds. House Republicans were either ignorant enough to believe this or recognized the vote as a cynical red-meat play to the base. But the absence of several Republican senators in a committee meeting ultimately doomed the bill.
A raft of bills from Rep. Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle) that he disingenuously portrayed as attempts to quell racial divisions but were indeed aimed at whitewashing curriculum and instruction failed to gain momentum. One of his bills would have prevented the teaching of curriculum developed by the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, which argues that slavery and its consequences belong at the center of our national narrative. Another would have cut funding from public K-12 schools or institutions of higher education if they did anything to “promote division between, resentment of, or social justice for” a particular race, gender, political affiliation or class of people. Lowery’s last gasp at waving away the teaching or discussion of systemic or institutional racism got farther along but ultimately failed as well.
Groups representing Arkansas superintendents and educators again rallied to help defeat a massive expansion of school vouchers proposed by Rep. Ken Bragg (R-Sheridan). It would have allowed taxpayers to get up to $4 million in credits for designating their taxes to pay for private school vouchers for lower income families. It also would have automatically grown annually by 25% if the demand for vouchers wasn’t met. But a narrower one, without the automatic growth provision, made it across the finish line. Sponsored by Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy), its cap will be $2 million, which will provide vouchers for around 250 lower income students to attend private school. Like the existing Succeed voucher program for children with disabilities, the legislature will undoubtedly seek to grow it exponentially in the coming years. Eroding traditional public education is a long-term project for many Arkansas Republicans.
Abortion rights yanked farther out of reach
Silent handmaids in their crimson cloaks stood vigil multiple times at the Capitol to bear witness as lawmakers attacked reproductive rights in Arkansas. The courts will surely make quick work of chucking out Senate Bill 6 to ban all abortions in the state, including for victims of rape and incest, with the only exception to save the life of the mother. Sponsors hoped to bait the U.S. Supreme Court’s attention with the ban, but should the court decide to take up the issue, other states’ challenges to the Roe v. Wade decision upholding the right to access abortion care will likely get first dibs.
Other new impediments to abortion care might stick. Those include a new requirement that abortion clinics secure contracts with hospitals and ambulance services to provide care for any patients who need emergency treatment. The fact that complications from abortions are far less common than those from wisdom teeth extraction mattered not at all; this new law tangles clinics in more red tape and promotes the false assumption that abortions are dangerous.
Women seeking to end their pregnancies won’t be able to do so without enduring cruel and unusual punishments at the hands of the state. The new “Right-to-Know-and-See Act” requires women to undergo ultrasounds where they will have to listen to medical descriptions of the fetus and be shown ultrasound images before they can have abortions.
Rape victims who fail to realize or acknowledge early on that their trauma resulted in pregnancy have some new hoops to jump through if they choose not to carry a rapist’s offspring to term. These women will have to provide a police report if they seek an abortion after the 20-week mark.
That banning access and education about reproductive health only makes things worse doesn’t appear to be a deterrent. Which is a shame.
As Planned Parenthood Great Plains CEO and President Brandon J. Hill noted, “Health outcomes in Arkansas are among the worst in the nation. Under the ‘leadership’ of anti-abortion legislators and Gov. Hutchinson, Arkansas continues to see the highest rates of teen pregnancies, infant and maternal mortality, and sexually transmitted infections and diseases.”
Voting gets harder
Force-feeding patriotism to Arkansas students while simultaneously eroding the voting rights at the core of our democracy? Arkansas legislators missed the irony. Students will get a daily dose of the Pledge of Allegiance and a weekly taste of “The Star-Spangled Banner” thanks to new state legislation, even as their parents’ ballots are less likely to be counted.
A slew of bills curtailing voting rights glided through the Arkansas Capitol this year. They came largely from Pulaski County Republicans who felt burned after newcomer Democrat Rep. Ashley Hudson of Little Rock bested incumbent Jim Sorvillo by just a few votes. Republican Pulaski County Election Commissioner Kristi Stahr complained loudly and often about voting rights advocates’ successful efforts to ensure absentee ballots were rightfully counted, and indeed, Stahr was a driving force behind many of the new voter suppression laws that will be on the books in time to prevent and erase an untold number of votes in 2022. It’s true that vote counting in Pulaski County took much longer than normal due to the sixfold increase in the number of absentee ballots pouring in as people voted from home because of the coronavirus pandemic. But pin any disorganization and delays squarely on Stahr and now dethroned Pulaski County Election Commission Chairwoman Evelyn Gomez, who spent as much time insulting election staff as she did reviewing ballots.
In the end, though, the process held firm. Even the Hutchinson-appointed members of the Arkansas Claims Commission, asked to consider whether fraud or miscounting delivered Democrat Hudson a win, affirmed the integrity of the 2020 vote count.
Still, sponsors of these voter suppression bills regurgitated debunked talking points from Trump’s “Stop the Steal” narrative that had riled the base into attempting murder and kidnap of members of Congress on Jan. 6. That no evidence of voter fraud emerged on either the national or local levels deterred Arkansas Republicans not at all in their efforts to make voting harder. Sponsors spewed disinformation to pass measures that will pull voting out of reach for Black and Brown people, rural communities, the elderly and people with disabilities.
“These bills don’t just make it harder to vote, they also make it easier for partisan politicians to interfere with local election administrators, something that could have disastrous consequences for democracy,” ACLU Arkansas Director Holly Dickson said. “These bills will make it harder for all voters — of all political stripes — to make their voices heard.”
Among the voter suppression bills that made their way into law is House Bill 1112 by Republican Rep. Lowery of Maumelle to prohibit anyone without a valid state-issued form of identification from casting a ballot. Before this legislation, people who lacked an ID could sign a verification statement attesting to their identity and have their votes counted. Indeed, more than 3,000 voters in Pulaski County alone did just that in 2020. Going forward, however, signatures will no longer be enough. This means residents of extended care facilities, senior citizens and other people who don’t maintain drivers’ licenses will have to either go through the process of obtaining an ID or forgo their voting rights.
“To take away the optional verification of identity, that was the worst,” said Election Commissioner Joshua Ang Price, who represents Pulaski County Democrats on the three-person commission. His mother no longer drives, and will be among those either disenfranchised or inconvenienced by the new law. Sponsors of this bill couldn’t name any instances of fraud by people who verified their identity via signature rather than presenting ID, he said. “This is a legally binding document. Why is that not good enough?”
Sen. Kim Hammer (R-Benton) passed Senate Bill 486, which mirrors a controversial new Georgia law banning volunteers from handing out snacks and water to people in long lines at the polls.
Senate Bill 557 by Sen. Mark Johnson (R-Little Rock) will give partisan, part-time county election commissions supervision over the full-time election staff currently managed by election directors or other county employees. All of Arkansas’s three-person county election commissions comprise two members of the majority party and one member of the minority party, meaning that Republicans control all election commissions in blood-red Arkansas.
The power of Arkansans to petition their government, a power which gave us a higher minimum wage and access to medical marijuana, is at risk from House Joint Resolution 1005 by Rep. David Ray (R-Maumelle). This measure, which will be referred to voters, would require 60% approval of citizen-led ballot initiatives before they could go into law. Currently those initiatives win approval with a simple majority. Had this structure been in place in 2016, medical marijuana would not be legal in Arkansas, as it won only 53% of the vote.
Meanwhile, a bill that would have been a shot in the arm for Arkansas’s abysmal voter registration and turnout rates failed to make it out of committee. House Bill 1517 by Rep. Justin Boyd (R-Fort Smith) would have allowed online voter registration, a vast improvement over the current system that requires people to register by snail mail. Forty other states already offer online voter registration.
While it was mostly gloom and doom, workhorse Rep. Andrew Collins (D-Little Rock) teamed up with Sen. Breanne Davis (R-Russellville) on House Bill 1202 to make sure all Arkansas voters can access sample ballots on the internet beforehand so they’ll be prepared when they get into the voting booth.
Adult lawmakers brutalize transgender children as a horrified nation looks on
Hate lives here. There’s simply no other explanation for the torrent of anti-transgender assaults lawmakers are lobbing from the Capitol. Never has a transgender person assaulted anyone in an Arkansas public bathroom. Nor have transgender student athletes ever snatched trophies and medals from the clutches of their cisgender competitors. Led Rep. Bentley and Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View), Republican lawmakers didn’t let these facts stop them from codifying hate in the form of bans on transgender girls on school sports teams and a ban on life-saving, gender-affirming care that’s the first of its kind in the nation. A cavalcade of doctors lined up at multiple hearings to attest to the safety and strong track record of puberty blockers and other gender-affirming care. Legislators ignored the medical community on this, just as they had on reproductive rights issues. So wed to this ban on medical care were Arkansas lawmakers that they brushed off proof that it was driving transgender teens to suicide.
“Don’t make me feel guilty because you made a choice to follow a different path,” Rep. Jim Wooten (R-Beebe) said after learning about the suicide attempts of three transgender children in Arkansas in the weeks since the legislature began its onslaught. “Don’t put a guilt trip on me.”
Absorbing a barrage of meanness is not a novel experience for transgender residents in Arkansas, said Willow Breshears, an Arkansas native and an organizer for transgender rights. But enduring the laser focus of lawmakers who know little to nothing about the issue was tough, she said.
“They’re trying to legislate an experience they know nothing about and don’t want to know anything about,” she said.
Among the bills targeting transgender people is a “medical conscience act” that allows health care providers to deny nonemergency care for moral reasons, meaning a pharmacist could refuse to fill prescriptions for a transgender person and a doctor could deny them an appointment.
Transgender people aren’t harming anyone, they’re not causing problems, so why all the attention? Breshears has a theory. “The legislature wants to send a very clear message to trans kids. They are not here to support them, they don’t value them, they don’t care about them.”
Heartbreaking, yes, but hard to argue with when you consider the spate of new laws on the books. The governor’s unexpected veto of the ban on gender-affirming care for youth offered a tiny win, but lawmakers quickly overrode it. Will young people already taking hormones corresponding with their gender identity have to look to the black market or head out of state for care? Unless the courts strike Arkansas’s new law, the answer will be yes.
Defenders of transgender rights kept showing up at the Capitol despite so many setbacks, and managed to stall a proposed new bathroom bill that would have required people in publicly owned facilities to use gender-neutral bathrooms or bathrooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificates. Construction costs to add gender-neutral facilities to schools, arenas, municipal buildings, etc. would be in the millions, and committee members said they wanted a solid estimate before moving forward.
Next steps for securing civil rights for transgender Arkansans aren’t clear. But an army of families, educators, doctors and other advocates are standing firm. “We’re not giving up,” pediatrician Chad Rogers said at a rally on the Capitol steps, where he and other members of the medical community vowed to protect their patients. “We love you and we will take care of you.”
Contempt for public health
The main takeaway for Arkansas Republicans from the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed nearly 6,000 Arkansans and nearly 600,000 Americans, apparently was that public health is a pain in the ass. Governor Hutchinson ended the state mask mandate, but allowed schools or cities to continue to impose them. In the waning days of the session, lawmakers snatched away that local control under the guise of uniformity (hospitals and the correction department are exempt). Sen. Trent Garner (R-El Dorado) pushed through a prohibition on businesses conditioning entry or services on whether someone has been vaccinated.
Garner and other senators who tried repeatedly this session to flex their “we’re a co-equal branch of government!” muscles tried to toss out Health Secretary Jose Romero, a nationally respected public health expert who Governor Hutchinson tapped to lead the department amid the pandemic. The Senate technically has confirmation power over the governor’s cabinet appointments, but it has historically approved them pro forma. Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway) quoted Proverbs (“Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall”) and complained about Romero’s failure to embrace hydroxychloroquine as a low-cost miracle cure. Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch) scoffed at Romero’s fidelity to prescribing only drugs proven to be effective. Stubblefield shared that he’s been dipping into the industrial dewormer Ivermectin that he keeps on hand for his cattle herd, and that it has helped him ward off any COVID-19 infection. Romero was narrowly confirmed.
It feels almost like a miracle today that Arkansas was, in 2014, the first state in the South (along with Kentucky) to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Today, it and Louisiana remain the only states in the deep South to provide coverage to most all lower income residents. As a sop to restive conservatives, the Hutchinson administration created a work reporting requirement for participants, but it ran into problems with courts and the Biden administration. The new plan, passed this session and dubbed ARHOME, is a similar play. It tries to encourage work and health improvements by creating certain criteria for beneficiaries to receive private insurance plans, paid for by Medicaid, which is standard in Arkansas’s unique version of Medicaid expansion. Those who don’t meet the criteria would be enrolled in traditional Medicaid, which potentially limits beneficiaries’ access to care. In other words, Republicans believe poverty is a symptom of laziness and don’t mind creating a bureaucratic morass to punish them. It remains to be seen if the Biden administration will recognize as much and deny the framework.
Lindsey Millar contributed reporting. Illustrations by Kasten Searles.