The House today rejected Sen. Joyce Elliott’s bill to allow a racial impact statement on certain criminal law changes.
Questioning was hostile. Rep. Justin Gonzales tried to amend the bill with a poison pill that would add sex and religion to areas of study. The amendment was defeated after Rep. Clarke Tucker pleaded for an up or down vote on the bill itself, not a killer amendment. He said Elliott had worked for five years on the bill and deserved that.
Reps. Charlie Collins and Bob Ballinger spoke against the bill. They said the bill could be used to suggest a racial element in opposing a bill where a study showed a racial impact.
Tucker explained that the bill was not mandatory but permissive and only applied to some criminal law changes — in sentence, proof of crime and the like. He noted the famous unintended consequence of federal drug laws that put tougher sentences on crack cocaine than powder cocaine, a difference that disproportionately harmed black people because of racial preferences on cocaine use.
Ballinger seemed to suggest we now live in a post-race period where all are just people. By bills like this to emphasize race, he said, “We’re continuing to use it to beat people up.”
Rep. Vivian Flowers, who is black, took exception. She said she knew of too many cases of continuing disparate treatment.
Is there systemic racism today? No, Ballinger said. He said legislators too often are accused in roundabout ways of being racist. This bill, he said, is just one more tool to make it worse.
Flowers said this bill could be used precisely to dispel misinformation or guard against racial presumptions.
Tucker had argued two things: 1) it is never bad to have more information and 2) it would give Arkansas an opportunity to be a leader in the South. Several other states have such laws, but none in the South. He recalled the day when Arkansas led the South in enrolling blacks in medical and law schools.
In closing, Tucker said this was an opportunity to know on the front-end about unintended consequences and fix it and get to the point where the color of skin doesn’t matter.
The vote was 33-32, with 15 voting present, same effect as a no.
Opinion: Having heard the debate, it is impossible to say that feelings about race didn’t affect the outcome of this vote.