A watered-down substitute for a hate crime bill passed the House Monday, leaving Arkansas still among the only three states without meaningful legislation to protect commonly targeted groups.
The House passed Senate Bill 622 with 65 yes votes, 26 nos and five lawmakers voting present. The bill already has Senate approval, and now heads to the governor’s desk. Governor Hutchinson has indicated he will sign the bill into law.
The bill requires that someone convicted of committing crimes targeting victims based on their group or class to serve a minimum of 80% of his or her sentence. Unlike hate crimes bills in other states, though, this bill does not specify what those classes or groups are. House Speaker Matthew Shepherd (R-El Dorado) acknowledged Monday that this bill could be used if a criminal targeted a white man because the criminal hated men or white people.
This bill protects everyone, and in doing so, fails to protect members of commonly targeted and persecuted groups, said Rep. Tippi McCullough (D-Little Rock). She pointed out that black transgender women have been the victims of targeted crimes in Central Arkansas in recent years, but SB 622 does not single out LGBTQ people for protection.
And Rep. Monte Hodges (D-Blytheville) said this watered-down compromise bill simply fails the test. Arkansas lawmakers have passed a law to specifically protect law enforcement officers who are the victims of crimes. Hodges asked why they couldn’t do the same for other groups. “I just don’t feel that this bill identifies those that need to be protected the most,” he said.
Rep. Vivian Flowers (D-Pine Bluff) said the bill up for consideration doesn’t do what Arkansas needs it to do.
“If we believe deterrence matters and we believe that people are targeted in this country based on very specific dynamics, why wouldn’t we address that?” she asked her colleagues. Flowers also pointed to testimony last week from former Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Annabelle Tuck who said the bill is so vague as to be unconstitutional. Flowers suggested legislators go back to the drawing board until they could come up with something better. SB 622 is a compromise bill crafted to pass the muster of Republican lawmakers who didn’t like the more traditional hate crime law proposed earlier this session by Sens. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) and Jim Hendren (I-Gravette).
Flowers likened SB 622 to the compromise lawmakers made decades ago when they tried to appease conflicting factions by deciding to observe Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King Jr. on the same day. That bad compromise stuck for decades.
Whether the full House should even be considering this hate crimes bill substitute is debatable. House Judiciary Committee Chair Carol Dalby (R-Texarkana) broke House rules last week to move the bill out of committee, where it apparently failed on a voice vote. Dalby adjourned the meeting immediately after the voice vote despite calls from members for a roll call vote. House rules require committee chairs to run roll call votes if two or more committee members request it.
Republican lawmakers lined up to argue Monday to send SB 622 back to committee for a proper vote before it went before the full House (they were unsuccessful). Rep. Josh Miller (R-Heber Springs) said the bill needed to go back to committee for a proper vote to avoid the appearance that Republicans were “giving in to an agenda,” and Rep. Kendon Underwood (R-Cave Springs) said a voice vote in committee was an integrity issue (Underwood ultimately voted for SB 622. Miller voted against it).
One of them, Rep. Brandt Smith (R-Jonesboro), said, “Never have I seen such an egregious and disrespectful adjournment.” Smith ultimately voted against the bill.
“I agree that was the wrong thing to do ,” Rep. Shayla McKenzie (R-Gravette) said. “That was the wrong way to handle it. We owe our constituents better than that.” She ultimately voted no on the bill.
“I hate for any of this to reflect poorly on them, but the bottom line is we have a job to do,” said Rep. John Payton (R-Wilburn, who took pains to not offend Dalby or House Speaker Matthew Shepherd for moving the bill to the floor, even as he criticized their decision. “Just because someone is elected to leadership shouldn’t give them ability to pick winners and losers when it comes to bills.” Payton opted not to vote on SB 622.