Halfway home with the Arkansas legislature 

The session grinds on with tort reform, charter schools, criminal justice, voter ID, transparency, alcohol turf wars and more.

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We're at the point in the 2017 session of the Arkansas General Assembly in which most of Governor Hutchinson's major legislative priorities have passed: tax cuts, changes to the higher education funding formula, a variety of "efficiency" measures. But a broad assortment of other proposals remains very much in play. It's almost impossible to keep up with the blizzard of bill filings, amendments and committee and floor votes, let alone the ideological faults, transactional calculations, petty feuds and unlikely alliances that shape life at the Capitol.

With that in mind, we've compiled a sampling of legislative action from the past week. It's nowhere near comprehensive. The legislature also acted on bills to allow more guns on college campuses, to curtail the Freedom of Information Act regarding the Capitol police and to require greater transparency in campaign finance filings, among many other things.

The legislature is scheduled to recess April 7, with a return for formal adjournment May 5. That leaves the next five weeks for all kinds of other mischief to gain traction, from a to-be-amended "bathroom bill" targeting transgender people to a sweeping school voucher program. There's also some good legislation yet to be acted on, including a much-needed proposal by Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) to disclose shady political expenditures during campaign season and a bill, pushed by the governor, to end the state's odious practice of celebrating Robert E. Lee's birthday on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. And although both the House and the Senate have each proposed one constitutional amendment for the 2018 ballot, they could still refer out a third such measure by meeting jointly.

For the gory details on all of this legislation and more, visit the Arkansas Blog (arktimes.com) or our partners at the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network (arknews.org).

So much for the Seventh Amendment

Senate Joint Resolution 8 by Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View), the proposed "tort reform" amendment to the state Constitution, is almost certainly headed to the 2018 ballot. After being amended in a House committee last week, it passed the House on Monday and was re-referred back to the Senate.

SJR 8 originally contained $250,000 caps on the noneconomic and punitive damages that may be awarded to a claimant in a civil suit, but the amendment, by Rep. Bob Ballinger (R-Hindsville), raised those caps to $500,000. There are exceptions on the punitive cap if compensatory damages are above a certain level or if the defendant intentionally harmed the claimant. As in the original measure, attorney fees would be capped at 33 1/3 percent of net recovery, and authority for judicial rulemaking would be transferred from the courts to the legislature (this drew opposition from the Arkansas Supreme Court). Ballinger and other supporters say SJR 8 would prevent unnecessary lawsuits and create a better climate for business, thereby spurring economic growth.

Among the fiercest critics of the proposal was Rep. Douglas House (R-North Little Rock), who said SJR 8 abridged the constitutional right to a trial by jury. "If you brought up something to limit the Second Amendment, the right to carry arms, everybody would be up in arms," he said in committee. "But the Seventh Amendment, which is also part of the Bill of Rights, so many people are willing to throw it in the trash can." He said it was wrong to cap damages. "Would you take $500,000 if I was sitting here cleaning my pistol and I shot your privates off, so you couldn't have a sex life? ... Sorry, feel real bad about that. But that's the limits," House declared.

Another GOP opponent, Rep. Jimmy Gazaway of Paragould, took to the House floor to proclaim SJR 8 protected "the wealthy, the powerful, the insurance companies, the nursing homes." Establishing a cap on damages awarded in the event of a death should cause Republicans to ask whether they are "truly pro-life" he said. (House and Gazaway are both attorneys.) Nonetheless, it passed the House 66-30.

The public school building giveaway

It's a boon for charter schools and bad news for traditional public school districts. Senate Bill 308 by Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) would grant Arkansas charters the right to use public school facilities that are unused or underutilized and give them right of first refusal to purchase those facilities at fair market value. Clark portrayed the proposal as common sense: "It's to prevent empty buildings from sitting and falling down while we're not using them. It's as simple as that," he told the Senate Education Committee.

But traditional education advocates point out that charters and traditional public schools are in direct competition for students and dollars. Forcing districts to sell real property to a competitor gives charters quite the advantage, they say. "We keep talking about local control, but this is taking away local control," Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) said in committee. Some members of the Little Rock delegation see the bill as directly targeting the Little Rock School District, which will soon shutter at least two buildings (due to declining enrollment at those campuses) and which faces mortal competition from charter operators. Clark said his bill was motivated by a situation in Helena-West Helena, where a charter school's attempts to buy a vacant elementary school were initially rebuffed.

The bill passed out of committee on a voice vote and won passage in the full Senate, 25-4. It now heads to a House committee.

Incremental reform on criminal justice

Arkansas's prison population has grown faster than all other states' in recent years, largely due to a massive influx of probation and parole violators. The omnibus criminal reform bill Senate Bill 136 wouldn't come near to fixing all that ails Arkansas's troubled system, but it's a good start.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock), would redirect parolees and probationers who commit minor violations of the terms of their supervision from long stays in prison to terms in the range of 45 to 90 days in community correction facilities. The bill would also require new law enforcement hires and some existing officers to receive crisis intervention training so they could better respond to someone having a mental health episode and de-escalate the situation, rather than carting them to jail. Governor Hutchinson has allocated $5 million in his proposed budget to support the creation of at least three Crisis Stabilization Units, where people suffering from behavioral health episodes would receive treatment. The sites of the CSUs haven't been selected.

The bill is the culmination of 18 months of research and analysis by the nonprofit Council of State Government's Justice Center, which calls its project "Justice Reinvestment." The idea is that this will allow the state to save money and those savings can be reinvested in the system to make Arkansas safer. State prosecutors held up SB 136 for weeks in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but they've now stood down. After clearing the Senate on Monday, 27-4, the bill is up for a vote in House Judiciary, possibly this week.

The great wine war

Some legislative fights have nothing to do with ideology or principle and everything to do with the political brawn of dueling business interests. Senate Bill 284 by Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) and Rep. Jon Eubanks (R-Paris) is such a bill: It would allow sales of all wine in grocery stores, rather than just Arkansas and small-farm wine.

In one corner are most of the state's liquor stores, whose business models are built on Arkansas's byzantine alcohol sales rules (including the silly prohibition on wine sales in grocery stores). In the other is an alliance between big grocery retailers, led by Walmart, and county line liquor stores. The huge county line stores, which rely on business from neighboring dry counties, broke from their brethren to join forces with the bill's supporters in return for a purely self-interested deal. Their 30 pieces? Walmart and others would call an eight-year moratorium on efforts to spur local option alcohol elections in dry counties.

The bill passed out of committee, but failed in the House on Monday, 47-33 (with 12 legislators voting present, a sign of its contentiousness). It will surely be back for another vote.

Barrier to the ballot

On Thursday, the House approved a joint resolution to create a constitutional amendment to again require Arkansas voters show photo I.D. when casting a ballot. The vote on HJR 1016 by Rep. Robin Lundstrum (R-Elm Springs) was 73-21. If it wins passage in the Senate, it will be sent to voters in November 2018.

A voter I.D. bill by Rep. Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle) has also passed the House and will likely soon win approval in the Senate as well. However, some Republicans remain concerned Lowery's bill will be insufficient to withstand a court challenge, since a previous voter I.D. measure was overturned by the Arkansas Supreme Court. They feel a referred constitutional amendment is the only sure route to creating a permanent voter I.D. requirement in the state.

Rep. Warwick Sabin (D-Little Rock) spoke against the bill in committee and asked Lundstrum for examples of the type of voter fraud that her measure would combat. When Lundstrum said she couldn't give specific examples, Sabin replied, "We actually do have examples of people who have been disenfranchised as a result of voter I.D. being enacted previously, but we don't have any examples of voter fraud occurring through impersonating a voter." Lundstrum insisted that such examples exist. "I apologize, I didn't bring a list of them with me today," she said.

Max Brantley, Lindsey Millar and the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network's Ibby Caputo contributed reporting.



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