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The 91st Arkansas General Assembly: It's going to be a beast 

Some legislation to look for, and how to speak your mind.

click to enlarge MAYBERRY: His unconstitutional bill would effectively ban abortion in the second trimester.
  • MAYBERRY: His unconstitutional bill would effectively ban abortion in the second trimester.

The 91st General Assembly convened on Monday, and the next two months will bring all sorts of new laws to Arkansas. With a supermajority in both houses, the Republican agenda will prevail. What we describe here are bills already introduced or likely to find their way into the hopper.

Perhaps you would like to add your voice to the decision-making at the state Capitol. State Rep. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville) has published on his Facebook page the "2017 Determined Constituent Guide to the Arkansas State Capitol," which provides phone numbers to reach legislators (682-2902 for the Senate, 682-6211 for the House) and the governor (682-2345), names of the leadership in both houses, when the houses convene (1:30 p.m.), how to communicate with your legislator, and where Capitol offices are located and where committees meet.

House committee meetings are live-streamed, and you can send a note asking to meet with a legislator via Red Coat assistants.

Find the schedule of committee meetings at arkleg.state.ar.us.

The upcoming legislation we address here includes bills to prohibit transgender people from using the bathroom of the gender they identify with; cut taxes; make it harder for women to get abortions; allow guns on college campuses; make it harder for people without specific forms of photo identification to vote; punish "sanctuary" cities and campuses that adopt policies of tolerance toward undocumented immigrants; and make it easier to fire teachers. What the legislature will do about Medicaid expansion remains to be seen.

Bathroom bill

In a state with a long history of legislative train wrecks, it's hard to imagine one more easily avoidable than the prospect that the legislature may pass an anti-LGBT "bathroom bill" that forces a transgender person to use the public restroom that corresponds to the sex on his or her birth certificate.

The potential economic hit the state could take over such legislation is already writ large in North Carolina. North Carolina House Bill 2, passed in March 2016 and signed into law by now-former Gov. Pat McCrory, led to boycotts and scaling back of hundreds of millions of dollars in business investment in the state, along with public condemnation by inclusive, 21st century employers like PayPal, Apple and Yelp. That's in addition to the $100 million impact estimated by the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority when the National Basketball Association decided to pull the 2017 NBA All-Star Game out of North Carolina in reaction to HB 2. And the September announcement that the NCAA would yank seven NCAA tournament games from Greensboro (an estimated $51 million impact). And rock legend Bruce Springsteen's April 2016 decision to cancel a Greensboro show (to the tune of another estimated $700,000 impact). All told, Forbes estimates the economic impact of HB 2 to the Tar Heel State at somewhere in the neighborhood of $600 million so far. It's a number that seems destined to keep climbing as obstinate legislators there continue to resist and foot-drag on efforts at repeal, even in the wake of the ouster of McCrory in November.

Nonetheless, the economic hurt laid on North Carolina since the coming of HB 2 appears to be an object lesson that's going unheeded across the nation. So far, legislators in Alabama, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington have introduced similar bills. Next door in Texas, legislators introduced a bill similar to North Carolina's HB 2 soon after the new year, even though the Texas Association of Business issued a warning last year that the passage of a "bathroom bill" could create a backlash that costs the Texas economy up to $8.5 billion and 185,000 jobs.

With far-right legislators in Arkansas undoubtedly considering playing a round of Raleigh Roulette by filing an HB 2-style bill of their own, one of those who appears to be heeding the lessons of North Carolina is Governor Hutchinson. At a Jan. 4 press conference to discuss his legislative agenda in the coming session, Hutchinson said that he believes the issue of transgender people using the restroom of their choice is not "a problem" in Arkansas, and made it clear that a bathroom bill is not something he would support. While Hutchinson didn't say he'd veto such a bill, he did say he had been in touch with "legislators of interest" who might file legislation on the issue.

"I would choose to judge the issue on its merits and what's needed in the state," Hutchinson said. "I think the compelling arguments are: One, we don't have a problem. Secondly, we're awaiting more information from the courts and the Trump administration, and I do not believe that we ought to be engaged in legislation when there's not a problem."

House Speaker Jeremy Gillam (R-Judsonia), who appeared with Hutchinson and Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren (R-Gravette) at the press conference, said that he'd want to see "quantifiable data," before he could reach a conclusion on whether a bathroom bill was needed. Hendren added that if people do something obscene in a public restroom, they deserve to be harshly punished, especially if children are involved, but said of a bathroom bill: "Now if we need a bathroom bill to prevent something like that from occurring, I don't know. ... If it's punitive, if it's something completely unreasonable, then probably not."

Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Randy Zook agrees with the governor that an anti-trans bathroom bill is unneeded in the state. "There doesn't appear to be a problem," Zook said on the first day of the 2017 legislative session. "If one materializes, then we'd probably want to try to deal with it." Asked if his agreement with the governor on the issue is based on the economic fallout seen in North Carolina, Zook said the potential for a similar scenario in Arkansas certainly exists.

"We would like to try to avoid any unfavorable publicity for the state," Zook said. "Lots of economic activity could be negatively affected with unnecessary or unwarranted legislation. Again, until there's a problem, we just think there's no problem."

David Koon

click to enlarge COZART: Wants to chip away at the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act.
  • COZART: Wants to chip away at the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act.
Education policy

When Governor Hutchinson laid out his agenda for the 2017 session, education was one of three categories he prioritized (the others being "economic development" and a grab bag of reforms dubbed "efficiencies"). Yet most of the initiatives the governor listed were modest, wonky and uncontroversial: invest $5 million more in computer science, improve phonics instruction for teachers, rework scholarships targeted toward community college students, and deliver a welcome $3 million boost in pre-K funding to improve teacher quality. He made no mention of hot-button items like charter schools or vouchers. This is notable both because education is the largest item in the state budget — K-12 and higher ed together comprise almost two-thirds of general revenue spending — and is the subject of intense policy debates. Expect more substantial (and contentious) proposals to emerge from the General Assembly in the coming weeks.

The most significant school-related legislation filed so far concerns the labor law that establishes due process for firing certain school employees, the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act. Reps. Bruce Cozart (R-Hot Springs) and Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle) filed a pair of bills in early December that would chip away at the law. Cozart's House Bill 1017 would allow the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act to be waived in a public school or school district that has been taken over by the state Education Department; the Little Rock School District is the most prominent example of such a district. House Bill 1029, authored by Lowery, would exclude principals, assistant principals and central office staff with multi-year contracts from protection under the law.

In December, Cozart, who chairs the House Education Committee, told the Times his bill was necessary to help the state improve academic outcomes at troubled schools. "It doesn't have to be used, but it would give [the State Board of Education, which authorizes state takeovers] an opportunity to use that tool," Cozart said. "I'm not against teachers, don't get me wrong ... but sometimes when a state takes over a school, there are issues with teachers." He said the bill was not targeting the LRSD in particular.

Brenda Robinson, president of the Arkansas Education Association, said, "the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act simply outlines the process by which a school may remove a teacher from employment for a valid reason. ... This bill ignores that fact and chooses to blame and shame teachers." Robinson said legislators "need to focus on what helps students the most: recruiting the right people into teaching, providing ongoing training, compensating teachers appropriately, developing reliable ways to measure teacher effectiveness and giving teachers the resources to help every child succeed."

Cozart introduced a similar proposal in 2015 as part of a larger bill to establish "achievement districts" in Arkansas, which would allow the state to privatize districts or schools under state takeover by assigning their operations to nonprofit charter management organizations. He pulled the legislation after opposition emerged from groups like the Arkansas School Boards Association and the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, which represents school superintendents. Many education advocates are anticipating the return of an "achievement district" bill this session.

Mike Mertens, assistant executive director at the AAEA, said his organization "would have concerns" if such legislation reemerged, though he cautioned that "we would have to see exactly what was in the bill." Mertens said the AAEA opposed Cozart's 2015 legislation because it "took away local control" and included no appeal process for a local school board. Should a privatization measure be filed, the AAEA and the teachers union (the AEA) will likely be critical in opposing it, as will grassroots opposition organized by the Arkansas Citizens First Congress.

As for the governor's initiatives, there is one in particular that bears a closer look. Hutchinson is pushing a new "outcomes-based funding formula" for higher education, which will tie college and university funding to graduation rates and other metrics. Rather than simply subsidizing institutions based on student enrollment, the state would (theoretically) hold them more accountable for delivering measurable results. There are reasons to be skeptical of such a plan — it potentially creates an incentive to inflate grades and a disincentive to enroll more academically disadvantaged students — but the state's colleges and universities are solidly lined up in support of the proposal, in part because Hutchinson has pledged a $10 million increase to higher ed funding if his model is adopted.

—Benjamin Hardy

Tax cuts

Since Republicans gained majorities in the state House of Representatives and Senate in 2012, they've made slashing taxes on the rich a priority. In the last two general legislative sessions, GOP legislators pushed through a massive cut on taxes on capital gains, a benefit overwhelmingly enjoyed by the wealthiest Arkansans, and they reduced the income tax burden on all but the working poor. To his credit, Governor Hutchinson wants a $50 million tax cut, as part of his proposed $5.5 billion budget, directed at the people who were left out of previous cuts — those with taxable income of less than $21,000. That's laudable in spirit. Arkansas has one of the more regressive tax environments in the country. Households making more than $330,000 (i.e. the 1 percent) pay less than 6 percent of their income in local and state taxes, while those making less than $16,000 pay 12 percent of theirs in local and state taxes, according to Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. Much of that disparity is the result of the state's relatively high sales tax. Low-income workers do pay income tax — in 2013, some 540,000 Arkansas families with net income of less than $21,000 paid $115 million in state income tax — but they pay a greater share of their income in sales taxes. Low-income workers would be helped more by a state Earned Income Tax Credit, tied to the federal EITC, which takes into account workers' income and number of dependents. It should have bipartisan appeal. It rewards work. It's a proven ladder out of poverty. And, because most low and middle-income taxpayers spend their tax refunds, it's money that's quickly cycled back into the state economy.

If only that was the limit of the coming debate.

Instead, a number of legislators want to see a significantly larger tax cut. Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) has proposed a $105 million tax cut. It would eliminate income taxes for people making less than $21,000 and adjust the tax tables to benefit middle and upper income families. There's been additional talk of $200 million and $300 million tax cuts. Rep. Charlie Collins (R-Fayetteville) has floated the idea of repealing a law passed in 2013 that reduces the sales tax on groceries from 1.5 percent to 0.125 percent once the state is no longer obligated to make $65 million annual desegregation payments to Pulaski County schools. That's scheduled to happen after the end of fiscal year 2018. Collins wants instead to use that money to further cut taxes on those making more than $75,000 per year. The governor has said (rightly, again) that such a repeal would be viewed as a tax increase. UPDATE: After this article was filed, Hester and Collins said Hutchinson's proposal to establish a commission to develop a longterm strategy to reduce taxes had persuaded them to wait to pursue larger cuts.

There are two problems to consider simultaneously when it comes these sorts of tax cut proposals, said Bill Kopsky, executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel. There's ensuring that an already regressive tax system doesn't become more so, and then there's working to prevent further cuts to state services and infrastructure.

"We've really slashed revenue in the last several sessions," Kopsky said. "That's left a lot of priority needs for the state's future underfunded — whether you look at [K-12 education], higher ed, the legitimate needs of the highway system, increased funding for pre-K, or after-school programs proven to help all kids. ... We're not investing in the types of things that make families stronger and makes kids succeed and would make Arkansas attractive to economic development."

In a state where the constitution requires a balanced budget and that K-12 education be "adequately" funded, there isn't much wiggle room in the budget. Education, health and human services and prisons account for more than 90 percent of general revenue expenditures. After $242 million in tax cuts in recent years and with revenue collections in fiscal year 2017 currently down $8 million and the future of Medicaid expansion in doubt, legislators may begin to eye things like pre-K funding, parks and tourism, natural and cultural heritage programs and rural economic development for cuts, Kopsky said.

The nonpartisan nonprofit he leads, the Arkansas Public Policy Panel (arpanel.org), is focused on health care, civil rights, economic and social justice and the environment. Staffers read every bill, flag those that are problematic and send an email update to members every Monday with action plans for combatting troublesome bills. Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families (aradvocates.org) does similar policy analysis on legislation that impacts Arkansas families.

—Lindsey Millar

Abortion

Legislation sponsored by State Rep. Andy Mayberry (R-Hensley), whose 2013 bill made it illegal for women 20 weeks or more pregnant to have an abortion, would reduce that limit to 13 or 14 weeks with a bill that apparently bans the safest procedure for abortion at that gestational stage.

House Bill 1032, modeled after National Right to Life Committee legislation and the first in the hopper for the General Assembly, would outlaw what it calls "dismemberment abortions." The bill would make it illegal to cause an abortion by the "use of clamps, grasping forceps, tongs, scissors, or similar instruments that, through the convergence of two rigid levers, slice, crush or grasp a portion of the body of the unborn child to cut out or tear off a portion of the body of the unborn child."

"Dismemberment" is not a medical term, and medical professionals say it does not accurately represent the procedure it is apparently targeting, dilation and evacuation, and would be difficult to enforce.

The bill does not make exceptions for pregnancies that are the result of incest or rape.

The legal community says such a law would be unconstitutional in that it would create an intrusion on best medical practices, cause an undue burden on the doctor and patient seeking a legal procedure and ignore the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on viability. Six states have introduced "dismemberment legislation," but it has been enjoined from taking effect by the courts in three of those states — Alabama, Kansas and Oklahoma — and is not being enforced during a legal challenge in Louisiana. There were no challenges to the law in Mississippi and West Virginia; those laws take effect this year.

If the bill passes and survives a court challenge, it could mean women in Arkansas who are past the nine-week medical abortion window and whose doctors believe that the safest way for them to exercise their legal right to abortion would be dilation and evacuation would be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. Giving birth is risker than abortion, so not only would the bill take away a legal right, it would involve health risks for women.

Dilation and evacuation, a procedure used after 14 weeks until viability (after 21 weeks), involves using a seaweed extract to soften the cervix and a cannula to suction the fetal tissue from the womb. To guard against infection, doctors use instruments to make sure there is no fetal tissue remaining in the womb. The World Health Organization and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend the procedure as the safest for women more than 12 or 13 weeks pregnant. (Another procedure, dilation and suction curettage, is commonly used earlier in pregnancy, or to treat the patient after a miscarriage or a uterine disease.)

Mayberry believes abortion is an "immoral" act based on his interpretation of the Bible, he said during hearings in 2013 on his earlier abortion bill. In an email, the Times asked Mayberry, among other questions, if he would personally block the door of an abortion clinic to a woman desiring an abortion by explaining that he, as her legislator, could not permit her to enter. He did not respond, but in a phone interview, co-sponsor Sen. David Sanders (R-Little Rock), said he wouldn't.

However, Sanders said he would tell a woman who was feeling "hopeless or alone" that she did not have to feel that way. He also said he did not believe the bill would be considered unconstitutional, despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that states can't ban abortion until a fetus is viable, somewhere at the beginning of the third trimester, or 12 or 14 weeks later than the period this bill targets, because he believes there are alternatives, including the injection of a substance into the uterus that would terminate the pregnancy.

"On the technical aspects, the bill would not prevent an abortion where there was an injection that terminated the life, the pregnancy," Sanders said. But this reporter's research could find no evidence of such a procedure and a medical professional would only exclaim disbelief at the suggestion.

Sanders also said that rape victims usually seek abortion at an earlier stage, but medical statistics show that nearly a third of pregnancies resulting from rape are not discovered until the second trimester.

In answer to a press conference question about whether anti-abortion bills of questionable constitutionality should go forward given the possibility of a pro-life Supreme Court under President Trump, Governor Hutchinson said last week that pro-life legislation presented an opportunity "to move the court, to move the debate and to move another case to the Supreme Court." The bill was referred to the Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor on Monday. The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas will no doubt lobby against the law.

Opponents of the bill may wish to participate in the seventh Rally for Reproductive Justice at 1 p.m. Jan. 28 on the state Capitol steps. The Women's March for Arkansas, while not specifically a pro-choice rally, was organized in response to the misogyny demonstrated in the 2016 elections; it will start at 11 a.m. Jan. 21 at the corner of Pulaski Street and Capitol Avenue.

—Leslie Newell Peacock

Campus carry

Though Governor Hutchinson has said he does not see a need for it, Rep. Charlie Collins (R-Fayetteville) says he will introduce a bill to require college and university campuses to allow faculty and employees with concealed carry permits to bring their guns to campus. That would amend state law, which now allows campuses to opt out of a provision in a law Collins introduced in 2013 to allow what's called campus carry. All Arkansas colleges and universities have repeatedly voted to opt out. Collins tried in 2015 to amend the law to remove the opt-out provision, but the Senate referred the bill to committee, where it died.

The governor said at a December press conference that the opt-out provision was "very workable" for campuses. Collins said he has a "good working relationship" with Hutchinson and is "obviously open to the governor's opinion."

Collins believes that allowing campus faculty and employees to carry guns would deter what he calls "rampage killers." Should such killers discover that faculty members were armed, they would think twice before attacking, Collins said. "They're going to avoid where they're going to be interdicted."

In 2015, Collins told the Times that "mass murderers in gun-free zones like college campuses are a real problem that's not going away on its own."

There has never been a mass shooting on a college campus in Arkansas. The last shooting with multiple fatalities in the United States was at Umpqua Community College in Oregon in 2015; 10 died, including the shooter. However, under Oregon law, persons with concealed carry permits may carry on campus. The college's rule that no guns were allowed on campus was in conflict with state law.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech University shooting, in which 32 people were killed, legislation has been introduced in several states to allow some form of concealed carry on campus. Eight states now allow or have laws coming into effect that require colleges to allow permit holders to carry concealed weapons on campuses.

Campus carry has been something of a crusade for Collins. He introduced his first campus carry bill in 2011; it was defeated then.

Austin Bailey, of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, said guns on campus are a threat to safety, not a deterrent, and the dollars that will be needed to train personnel in case of a campus shooting should be invested in campus police, not professors.

"If the House has brand-new metal detectors and beefed up security to keep guns out, can they really force guns on to Arkansas campuses?" Bailey asked. 

Arkansans Against Guns on Campus, which is not a formal organization but has a Facebook page, has opposed campus carry since 2013. Steve Boss, a member of the group, called the issue an "obsession" with Collins. "Nobody asked for this bill," he said. "The police don't want it, the campus officials don't want it and have expressed their desire not to have it."

The head of campus police at the University of Arkansas declined to express an opinion on campus carry, referring a reporter to the administration. Calls to the University of Arkansas for comment had not been returned by press time Tuesday.

Boss said guns on campus would be vulnerable to theft. He said the prospect that professors could be carrying guns might discourage applications to the UA and that some students might be wary of talking to a professor about school issues if they thought he or she might have a gun on them.

Boss also noted instances of accidental shootings on campuses, including a professor at Idaho State University who accidentally shot himself in the foot during class.

Nevertheless, Boss said "the odds are stacked" against defeating the bill, given the Republican supermajorities in both houses.

Collins said he may tweak the bill from the version introduced in 2015, HB 1077.

Collins said he does not think students should be allowed to carry weapons on campus. "The idea of drunk 18-year-olds in a dorm room ... ." He did not need to finish the sentence.

Leading the fight against the campus carry bill will be Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, whose members have scheduled a lobby event at the legislature from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Feb. 1. The lobby day is not just for mothers, but all who want to hinder gun violence. The group is also making phone calls, emailing, tweeting and using social media to get the word out about gun legislation. The group's Facebook page, Moms Demand Action - AR, provides ideas on how to let your legislator know your stand on the bill, including a sample letter, and links to news on Collins' bill. The group will also have a table set up at the Women's March on Jan. 21 to provide information on the legislation. Fayetteville-based Arkansans Against Guns on Campus, which describes itself on its Facebook page as a "coalition of students, faculty, alumni, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers," also provides links to articles about the gun lobby and campus safety.

—Leslie Newell Peacock

Voter ID

As of Election Day 2016, 31 states require some form of government-issued identification in order to vote. Ostensibly about preventing the scourge of in-person voter fraud — a crime so rare outside the hellscape of Donald Trump's head that a 2014 study by Loyola (Los Angeles) Law School Professor Justin Levitt found just 241 possible incidents of in-person voter fraud in over 1 billion U.S. votes cast — the real value of voter ID laws to Republicans is that they tend to disenfranchise those groups that often vote Democratic, including the young, the disabled, the poor and minority groups. Voter ID laws surely paid dividends for the GOP in Election 2016. In Wisconsin, for example, where Trump won the presidential election by fewer than 23,000 votes, The Nation reported that with the election looming, an estimated 300,000 registered voters were without a form of ID required by the state's strict 2014 voter ID law.

Understandably, Arkansas Republicans have been bully on the boogeyman of "voter fraud" for years (for example, a 15-page "Arkansas Voter Fraud Prevention Handbook" available from the secretary of state's website features a discussion of what to do if you notice a neighbor's cat is listed on the rolls as a registered voter). The legislature passed a voter ID bill in 2013, then overrode a veto by Gov. Mike Beebe to make it law. The law was subsequently struck down by the Arkansas Supreme Court in October 2014, with an opinion by the late Justice Donald Corbin saying the law would disenfranchise voters and was in violation of the state Constitution because it created new requirements for voting.

Like an undead horror, however, voter ID has shambled back from the grave for the 2017 legislative session, with State Rep. Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle) filing House Bill 1047 in December. The bill, which would amend the state Constitution's Amendment 51, would require voters to present a document that shows the voter's name, or a government issued ID or photo ID when they come to vote. If the voter is unable to show one of those forms of ID at the time of voting, poll workers will be required to list that the person didn't show the ID before allowing the voter to cast a provisional ballot.

Asked about voter ID laws just before the start of the legislative session, Governor Hutchinson said he has historically supported voter ID laws, and doesn't see them as a burden on citizens. "I do believe you have to look at the specific language of any voter ID law to make sure that it doesn't place a burden on the citizens and access to the ballot box," Hutchinson said. "So while I've generally supported a voter ID initiative, I want to look at the specific language of any bill to make sure it doesn't unduly burden our citizens ... because there is a segment of the population that does give up their own driver's license, but they still want to vote. We want to make sure they have that access."

Tom Masseau, executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas, said his group is monitoring Lowery's bill closely, and will be opposing it and other bills this session that might present an impediment to voting. "We feel that IDs are still very hard to come by for people," he said. "Yes, an individual can vote through a provisional ballot, but you and I both know: Will it ever get counted?"

Masseau said voter ID laws disproportionately disenfranchise the disabled because of the physical barriers they face getting to and from a place that issues ID, along with difficulties in obtaining the necessary documents. As an example, Masseau said that a person who may have spent years in a state institution might have a hard time securing their birth certificate and other documents proving citizenship and residency required to receive a state ID.

Asked how Arkansans can help the group push back against HB1047, Masseau invited people with disabilities or other impairments to share their stories of problems while voting in the last election — including polling places that weren't accessible to the handicapped — on the group's Facebook page, facebook.com/DisabilityRightsAR, or by calling its toll free number at 1-800-482-1174.

—David Koon

click to enlarge STUBBLEFIELD: He's filed a bill that would strip state funds from cities that demonstrate tolerance toward undocumented immigrants.
  • STUBBLEFIELD: He's filed a bill that would strip state funds from cities that demonstrate tolerance toward undocumented immigrants.

Undocumented immigrants

Since those on the right are traditionally suspicious of overreach from Washington, it may sound odd that staunchly conservative legislators would seek to punish local governments and institutions for insufficient compliance with federal law enforcement. But that's just what two bills from Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch) and Rep. Brandt Smith (R-Jonesboro) seek to do.

Stubblefield's Senate Bill 14 would strip state funds from Arkansas cities if they enact "sanctuary policies," meaning ordinances or law enforcement policies that demonstrate tolerance toward individuals who immigrated to the country illegally — for example, a policy preventing local police officers from interrogating people about their citizenship/immigration status. Smith's House Bill 1042, which contains substantially the same language as Stubblefield's, would do the same for public colleges or universities. Both define a "sanctuary policy" to include informal practices that (in the words of Smith's bill) "grant to illegal immigrants the right to lawful presence or status on the campus of the state-supported institution of higher education in violation of federal law."

Smith told the Arkansas Times in December that he filed the legislation in response to a group of faculty and students at Arkansas State University that were petitioning ASU to declare itself a "sanctuary campus." He said he'd been later assured by an ASU system representative that "that's not going to happen at ASU" but said his bill was still needed "in the event that these petitions get traction." Similar petition efforts sprang up at colleges across the country in the wake of a presidential election in which the winning candidate campaigned on inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric and promised to establish a "deportation force" and build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Stubblefield said he was unaware of any municipalities in Arkansas that fit his definition of "sanctuary cities," and added "this is more of a preemptive bill, to prevent that from happening." Smith indicated he was mostly concerned about the idea of Arkansas campuses harboring criminals who were in the country illegally. But although both sponsors said their legislation was preemptive, the bills are so broadly worded they could conceivably impact existing policies and resident families. For example, the student bodies of universities in Arkansas include some students who were brought across the border as children, grew up in the state and graduated from Arkansas high schools, yet do not have legal status. Should those young people be turned over to federal authorities for deportation?

Smith said that issue was "really challenging and really difficult ... . We don't want to be heartless about this, but there is a process. Some of these children had no choice. They were brought along with their families. But they need to make a very quick move to get legal before someone or some law forces them out." (However, there is no way for such students to "get legal," since there exists no pathway to legal status for immigrants who are here illegally.)

Neither bill may gain any traction, since immigration sharply divides two key constituencies within the GOP — business interests and nativists — and the governor has expressed skepticism toward the measures. When asked about sanctuary legislation recently, Hutchinson said, "I believe in the fundamental principle of allowing local governments to work, and so I have a resistance to those types of mandates," although he said he had not read the specific bills.

Should the sanctuary bills gain ground, expect loud opposition to come from the Arkansas United Community Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for immigrants. Mireya Reith, the AUCC's executive director, said the organization was "taking nothing for granted" and was watching the bills closely. (She also expressed concern about Smith's House Bill 1041, which could prevent the state from recognizing identification issued by foreign governments, such as the IDs provided by some consulates to their nationals.) "We think one of the strengths of Arkansas has always been for local communities and colleges to come to decisions that make sense for them," Reith said. "This would negate the ability of every community to consider all the options in terms of its relationship with newcomers to our state."

—Benjamin Hardy

Health care

The fight over Medicaid expansion — a.k.a., the private option or Arkansas Works — has dominated the ledge since 2013, when Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe and a group of moderate Republicans created the program. Because the appropriation for the program must be re-authorized every year, the health spending showdown between the GOP's pragmatists (including Governor Hutchinson) and its hardline conservatives has become a perennial feature of every legislative session. This time around, though, the Obamacare appropriation debate may be circumscribed by drama in D.C.

Conventional wisdom says congressional Republicans and President-elect Trump are leaning toward a "repeal and delay" strategy to undo Obamacare: Defund it now and replace it later. This would mean the program as we know it would remain in place for at least another year or two. Meanwhile, Republicans will likely try to shift federal spending on traditional, pre-ACA Medicaid to block grants, meaning states will have greater freedom to spend health care money how they see fit (and will have less of it over time). All of that spells huge changes to health policy in Arkansas — at some point. Right now, all is uncertain, and Congress probably won't deliver clarity in time for the Arkansas legislature to act before the session's end.

House Speaker Jeremy Gillam (R-Judsonia) told reporters recently that it would be "prudent right now to have a little patience to see what's going to come out of Washington." Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren (R-Gravette) predicted that "there will be perhaps some legislation" to make the existing Arkansas Works program more conservative, such as work requirements and an effort to lower the income cap for eligibility. As for long-term, systemic changes, though, "I think it's very likely that will be done at some future point in a special session," Hendren said.

The 300,000-plus Arkansans who now have insurance thanks to the Medicaid expansion — about a tenth of the state's population — probably won't lose their coverage right away. But if Republicans make good on the campaign promises of the past six years, they will in the future.

—Benjamin Hardy

click to enlarge BENTLEY: No more junk food for food stamp recipients if her bill passes.
  • BENTLEY: No more junk food for food stamp recipients if her bill passes.
Food stamps and junk food

Conservatives typically oppose the nanny state, but some seem invested in creating additional layers of bureaucracy in the lives of poor people. Take Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville). She's filed a bill to restrict Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to buy candy and soft drinks and other items deemed insufficiently nutritious. The state's Department of Human Services would be charged with determining what products qualify as having sufficient nutritional value based upon the standards for another food aid program, the Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC). SNAP can be currently be used to buy any food item, with exceptions for alcohol and hot food or food that would be eaten in-store.  The state would have to acquire a waiver from the federal government to enact the strict limitations it envisions. Republicans in the West Virginia legislature unsuccessfully tried to pass a similar bill last year. 

Among other problems, strict limitations would be devastating to Arkansans living in so-called "food deserts." The bill would create a massive access problem in rural areas and low-income neighborhoods in Arkansas, where some food stamp beneficiaries might find themselves unable to use food stamps because of a lack of retailers offering eligible items.

—David Ramsey


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