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The Arkansas State Capitol building in the evening in Little Rock, Arkansas.

3.31.23 – Arkansas Advocate

With a week to go, the Arkansas Legislature kicks it into high gear. It happens every legislative session. As adjournment nears, Arkansas lawmakers cram their biggest priorities through before it’s too late. House and Senate floor sessions go longer, and committees meet well into the night.

Trying to keep up with all the legislation advancing, failing and stalling felt like drinking through a fire hose at times this week.

It seems like weeks have passed since Sen. Ben Gilmore and Rep. Jimmy Gazaway introduced a massive bill overhauling Arkansas’ parole system, but that was only Monday.

Next week promises to be similarly busy with legislative leaders still planning to wrap up the main business portion of the session a week from today, April 7.

Others are skeptical the Legislature can complete it’s still lengthy list of to-dos by the end of next week.

That list includes: passing a state budget, the aforementioned criminal justice bill, referring constitutional amendments and — oh yeah — that $124 million income tax cut bill Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced yesterday.

Here’s what you need to know from the state Capitol this week:

1) The Protect Arkansas Act

Week 11 of the session started with the introduction of Senate Bill 495, also known as the Protect Arkansas Act.

The rework of Arkansas’ parole system was the second major legislative priority of Gov. Sanders (after education).

The “truth in sentencing” law would require those convicted of the state’s most violent crimes to serve 100% of their prison sentences behind bars. Those convicted of lesser, but still serious crimes would have to serve at least 85% of their prison sentences before becoming eligible for parole.

For less violent felonies, the bill would also do away with automatic parole eligibility, requiring inmates to instead work to earn “release credits” through education, workforce skills and behavioral health programming.

Go here for our full breakdown of the bill.

In addition to Sanders, the bill is backed by Attorney General Tim Griffin.

The legislation marched through the Senate Judiciary Committee, and with its bounty of co-sponsors, it should clear both the full Senate and House without significant legislative pushback.

The bill is opposed by a segment of the criminal justice research community, which says longer prison sentences don’t decrease recidivism and might do just the opposite.

2) Tax cuts

Most weeks, we dedicate a section of this legislative roundup to recently filed bills of note, but at this point in the session, it will be tough for any newly-filed bills to make it through before adjournment.

One exception is the $124 million income tax legislation introduced on Thursday by Sen. Jonathan Dismang with the support of Sanders, House Speaker Matthew Shepherd and Senate President Pro Tempore Bart Hester.

The bill would reduce Arkansas’ top individual income tax rate from 4.9% to 4.7% — a $100 million-a-year hit to state revenue.  The proposal also slashes the top corporate income tax rate by two percentage points to 5.1% — a $24 million-a-year revenue hit.

The cuts would take effect immediately and retroactively apply to Jan. 1 forward, meaning those affected — roughly 1.1 million Arkansans — would start seeing less money withheld from their paychecks this year.

Democrats and some advocacy groups oppose the legislation because it would benefit wealthy Arkansans and businesses the most while taking away money that could be spent on valuable programs and services.

Dismang was non-committal on Thursday, but he said there are ongoing discussions about other possible tax cuts lawmakers could enact before adjourning.

3) Culture Wars

Bills over controversial social issues didn’t slow down this week, but supporters of the transgender community did score a rare win on Tuesday.

The sponsors of the public bathroom bill made a significant change to the legislation.

The original version would have criminalized simply entering and remaining in bathrooms and locker rooms that do not match an adult’s gender assigned at birth if children are present.

However, the new version now limits potential misdemeanor charges and prosecutions to adults present “for the purpose of arousing or gratifying a sexual desire of himself or herself or any other person.”

Social conservatives continued the push to restrict the use of transgender students’ preferred pronouns.

House Bill 1468 passed the House on Monday and the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.

It requires public school teachers and professors to use the pronouns and names students were assigned at birth unless parents specifically allow them to do otherwise. Additionally, teachers could choose not to address transgender students by their preferred names or pronouns without facing “adverse employment action.”

The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday also rejected proposals to add exemptions to Arkansas’ near-total abortion ban for pregnancies resulting from incest and in cases where the mother’s health is at risk.

4) Right to know

A pair of bills to make Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act less robust received a mixed reception in the House of Representatives.

The House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee voted down a proposal to shield more government records from the public. Transparency advocates and press groups firmly denounced the bill.

The committee approved — as did the full House a day later — a second FOIA bill that seeks to define what constitutes a public meeting.

Generally, it has been understood that no two members of a governing body covered by Arkansas’ open-meetings law could privately discuss pertinent business.

Rep. Mary Bentley’s bill, which still must go through the Senate, would allow members of governing bodies, like city councils and school boards, to meet privately as long as there isn’t enough members present to exceed one-third of a quorum of a governing body.

For example, no more than three members of a seven-member board could meet privately to discuss board business.

The bill is a scaled-back version of Bentley’s initial proposal, which would’ve allowed board members to meet as long as they didn’t reach a quorum.

5) Parting shots

A lot of bills will be moving at rapid pace next week.

And members of the public will have a harder time following the action after both chambers suspended several rules to allow bills to move more quickly through the process.

We’ll be keeping several eyes on the Capitol and bringing you another snapshot next week.

Will it be the last one of the 2023 session?