Arkansas State Capitol

A second attempt to suspend normal House rules so bills could be rushed through failed Monday, as Arkansas representatives dug in their heels over a bill to roll back the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

It’s standard practice to suspend rules during special legislative sessions to get them over with quickly. Governors tend to not call special sessions unless and until they have the votes in hand to get their priorities through.


But Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders may have overplayed her hand this time. Her push to hide her own past travel plans and expenses, plus any “deliberative” or “pre-decisional” documents in state agencies, is attracting unprecedented bipartisan outrage.

The Democratic Party of Arkansas and Blue Hog blogger Matt Campbell, whose FOIA requests for Sanders’ expenses and travel companions on a state-owned plane kicked off this whole ordeal, are panning the government secrecy bill. But so are conservatives such as Americans for Prosperity, Conduit News and county Republican Party committees.


A state Freedom of Information Task Force that includes conservative FOIA expert Robert Steinbuch met for the first time this morning and gave the governor’s plan to gut Arkansas’s longstanding transparency law a hard no.

On Monday, that displeasure from experts and constituents translated into representatives’ refusal to suspend the rules so the special session could roll through town and right back out by Wednesday evening. The House gave a lively NO to Rep. DeAnn Vaught’s (R-Horatio) motion to suspend the rules Monday morning, and gave Rep. Jon Eubanks (R-Paris) the same treatment in the afternoon when he tried to expunge the morning’s vote to try again.


The afternoon’s nos prompted bill sponsor Rep. David Ray (R-Maumelle) to walk out of the House chamber, apparently frustrated.

With standard rules still in place, a 24-hour notice is required before committees can take up bills. That means House committees can’t meet until Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Senate moved ahead, passing a proposed income tax cut and a ban on COVID-19 vaccine requirements for state employees through committee on Monday. Their next stop is the Senate floor.

The FOIA rollback, however, went nowhere in the Senate as of Monday afternoon. Scuttlebutt at the Capitol was that the Senate’s State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee would reject the governor’s bill. A plan to move the bill to the more receptive Senate Judiciary Committee went sideways when a count of the votes revealed it would likely fail in a bipartisan fashion there, too, sources said.


The Senate reconvened at 3 p.m., and Senate President Pro Tem Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) said the FOIA bill is either being amended or will be refiled in a different form that he expects will enjoy more favorable reception. That amendment or new bill was still in the works, he said, so sit tight.

Sen. Bryan King (R-Green Forrest), an opponent of the FOIA bill, questioned Senate President Pro Tem Bart Hester’s attempts to force the bill through committee today.

Sen. Stephanie Flowers (D-Pine Bluff) asked Hester to wait until Tuesday to hold a committee hearing so lawmakers and constituents can have time to review the changes. (Overheard in the Senate gallery, from an ostensibly conservative voter equally opposed to rolling back government transparency: “It’s really bad when I side with Sen. Flowers.”)

But with timing rules suspended on the Senate side, Hester stood firm on holding a committee vote ASAP on the gutting of FOIA.

“I plan to have a committee to debate the FOIA bill today,” he said. Hester said he expected the bill to still go to the Senate’s State Agencies committee but acknowledged that could change.

Republican Sen. Bryan King of Green Forrest, who opposes the bill, seemed irritated when Hester said he didn’t know when the amended or new FOIA bill would go to a committee but wanted everyone to hang around the Capitol until then. Could it be an hour? 8 p.m.? 11 p.m.?

It’s possible, Hester answered.

“This is unbelievable,” King said.

At 3:14 p.m., the Senate adjourned to await further instructions.

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