With the close of the 2023 state legislative session looming, it’s all hands on deck. Bills are passing with lightning speed, and you can help make a positive difference.
We set our priorities when we set our budget. The legislature has been in session for 12 weeks. They were supposed to recess this Friday, April 7th but they waited until last Friday to file Arkansas’ constitutionally required budget bill, leaving no time for any of their own – let alone the public’s – consideration, input, and vetting. They’ve squandered time that should have been spent considering problems Arkansans actually face.
Instead, they’ve been banning books, policing librarians and doctors, taking away parents’ rights to raise our children, picking on transgender Arkansans, rolling back decades-old work on progress toward racial justice and working to try to control every aspect of our local communities and private lives. Now they are rushing us all toward a cliff, still trying to pass regressive and unconstitutional bills at the last minute, as quickly as possible. They are suspending rules left and right, obliterating transparency and public notice and input.
Oppressive and divisive bills are still a priority for some legislators.
Still moving is the plan to imprison even more Arkansans. This is an old, obvious snake oil for unaddressed social ills. We can’t adequately staff prisons as it is, or teachers either, and we are still trying to fund a broken criminal punishment system on the backs of Arkansans least able to pay. Though required by the Arkansas Constitution, we do not provide appropriate care for people who suffer mental illness. None of this has been addressed in any meaningful fashion. Yet, some politicians’ insatiable quest to trample Arkansans’ fundamental rights persists like a systemic disease. Our civil liberties – from the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech through our rights to equal protection and our fundamental rights to govern our own lives, Arkansans’ fundamental rights are still on the line.
Please push back now on these regressive ideas which are poised to roll us back decades.
Some bills among the worst of the worst still moving are:
Upending the Balance of All Rights
HB1615 is an old and dangerous attempt to undermine Arkansas' civil liberties and civil rights. Arkansans have uniquely strong protections for our religious liberty. This bill would elevate religious liberty above all other rights. It would open the door to a claim of exemption from every civil law, liberty, and right we have, including protections against discrimination. It would upset the balance of rights we’ve enjoyed as a state since 1836 and invite the slimmest of excuses to disregard all civil laws. Arkansans have twice recently rejected this, most recently last November.
To correct injustices of the past, we must build opportunities for the future. Yet bills keep coming to set us further back.
SB71 is threatening affirmative action – a proven tool in combating historic discrimination – by repealing programs aimed at ensuring we all have what we need to succeed. Among other problems, this sweeping bill would end outreach, recruitment and retention of minority candidates for opportunities offered through state government. This would adversely affect Arkansans’ equal opportunities in government programs, employment, schools and higher education, as well as the work of state agencies, boards, and commissions. It would be a colossal roll back of progress toward racial justice. It is especially painful to see the House debate this when a federal court has found we have presented a strong case that House districts (and thus elected legislators) are in place under a racially gerrymandered plan that violates the federal Voting Rights Act.
HB1738 is another attack on public school education concerning our history of race and racism. The bill frames discussions of discrimination or privilege as "controversial viewpoints," and allows parents to remove their child from any class period where there may be age-appropriate teaching or discussion of these important truths.
The never ending assault on LGBTQ Arkansans’ rights has persisted for decades and we are still facing some of the worst bills in the nation.
SB270 would declare that if a transgender adult enters or remains in a public restroom or changing facility matching their gender identity while a minor is present, they would be guilty of sexual indecency with a child. The bill was recently amended, but it is clearly an attempt to discriminate against trans Arkansans. This is another bill that solves zero actual problems in our state and serves only to satisfy out-of-state interest groups seeking to limit the ability of trans people to live and thrive.
Legislation is still coming for the rights of trans youth to express themselves. HB1468 limits the speech of teachers who want to affirm their trans students, and allows school employees to disregard the wishes of both students AND parents with whom teachers may disagree.
Criminal Legal Reform
SB495 is a 132-page criminal injustice bill proposing 3,000 new prison beds that will cost taxpayers at least $470M, and require an additional $31M annually in operating costs. If more incarceration meant lower crime rates, Arkansas would have one of the lowest crime rates in the country. Our prisons are notorious for their overcrowding, understaffing and lack of resources, creating unconstitutional conditions. Arkansas has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation for nonviolent offenses. SB495 would only make things worse by funneling more money into the broken system instead of resourcing Arkansans at the root causes of crime.
SB556 creates heightened protections for students' religious speech - and religious speech only. This is content-based discrimination, and it violates the First Amendment as well as tries to usurp the role of parents, not the government, to control children’s religious upbringing.
HB1610 would gut Arkansas’ open meetings law by defining what is considered a “meeting,” allowing one-third of a governing body to meet secretly about public business without public notice.
HB1819 expands the disorderly conduct statute to prohibit all kinds of speech and expression protected by the First Amendment. Arkansas’ disorderly conduct statute is already incredibly broad, and this proposal would allow police to shut down speech or expression that makes some people uncomfortable.
Framed as a necessary step to protect minors from the harmful effects of social media, SB396 would require social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube to contract with a third-party system to verify that users are 18 or have consent from parents or guardians to use the sites. The collection of this data has obvious risks to our privacy. Repositories of personal information are an attractive nuisance, inviting identity thieves, hackers, advertisers, and the government to come for it. This data is typically collected and maintained by third-party vendors, which also increases the risk of leaks.
Abortion is already outlawed in Arkansas, but some legislators are scrambling to try to make it even more illegal to try to score political points at the expense of people with few options in a state with one of the highest rates of pregnancy-related deaths in the nation. These proposals seek to further ban medication abortion.
HB1834 would create a civil claim for medical abortions, allowing the father of an unborn child, a prosecutor, or the attorney general to sue a doctor who violates physicians who violate Arkansas’ abortion laws.
HB1686 seeks to (again) ban medication abortion. The bill would make it illegal to use, prescribe, administer, procure or sell any instrument or measure with the purpose of terminating a pregnancy.
HJR1009 is a proposed constitutional amendment to establish the partisan election of judges. Arkansans already rejected this practice when we passed a constitutional amendment to provide for the nonpartisan election of our judges under Amendment 80 in 2000. We’ve seen how partisan politics have affected the work of our legislature, and we can’t let that happen to our judicial system. Politics do not belong in our judicial branch.
Arkansans’ voices are powerful and we’ve seen that this session. Let yours be heard now by contacting your state senator and representative.
Thank you for sticking with us!