For AR People
Gennie Diaz

Whew.

We did it, Arkansas. We made it through another legislative session – we think! The last minute Game and Fish debacle really threw a wrench in the works, but we’ll get to it. Honestly, it’s a par-for-the-course last minute fumble by the Legislature to manage to screw up what had been a relatively normal session.

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Here’s our retrospective on what happened, what it means for Arkansans across the state, and some things we didn’t quite have the capacity to report on at the time. We won’t dive into the Legislative Audit report in this post, but don’t worry – our take on that is coming.

Crypto

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Our final verdict on the two crypto bills that passed: Fine start, but there’s lots left to do. 

A quick refresher: The two bills return local control over crypto mines to jurisdictions that want them while retaining state power over data mines and centers via the Oil and Gas Commission rule-making process. They also require facilities within 2000 feet of residential homes to take serious steps to reduce noise (and give citizens limited standing to sue for facilities that don’t comply), provide for maximum noise limits, and require facilities to divest from foreign ownership.

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Sen. Bryan King‘s (R-Green Forest) slate of bills failed to gain the ⅔ majority in the House to be considered, mainly because Democrats decided to sit out the vote in a symbolic effort to keep the fiscal session focused on fiscal matters. We didn’t like all of his bills, but having the flexibility they would have provided would have been nice. Special sarcastic shoutout to Rep. David Ray (R-Maumelle), who led the charge to kill King’s bills in the House. We hope you enjoy that payout from the crypto lobby!

So what happens next? Gov. Sarah Sanders has signed the bills into law, which means facilities have 90 days to limit their noise production and 365 days to divest from foreign ownership. The rule-making process will also begin, allowing for more public comment. That last point is especially important, given that legislators have limited or eliminated the opportunity for public comment several times during the bills’ legislative journeys. It was extremely disappointing to witness.

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We generally like the rule-making process – it can be surprisingly democratic in nature, especially given that ALC gets a say – but there’s a risk here that Sanders will pack the Oil and Gas Commission with folks unfavorable to regulating the facilities. That being said, the outcry from constituents over the past year has been substantial, and people are still watching what happens closely.

This was genuinely an incredible example of how folks can influence policy. Legislators on all sides of the aisle from both chambers heard a lot from their constituents and took the concerns seriously. We do have a voice, Arkansas. We just have to use it.

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The Budget

The budget bills that passed will increase the state’s general revenue budget by $109.3 million to $6.31 billion total, with nearly all of that increase going to the voucher program (scam). King was the only senator to vote against it, and Rep. Austin McCollum (R-Bentonville) was the only representative to dissent. King’s been on record as being deeply concerned about LEARNS funding ballooning in upcoming years, and this vote is just one more example of that.

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The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that we were right on the money in March: Legislators are deeply frustrated at the slow-moving Department of Corrections, and they’re also stepping into the fight between the attorney general and the Board of Corrections. That won’t necessarily show up directly in budgetary matters, but the Legislature holds the power of the purse for a reason. If they don’t like the way this is going, they could very well mess around with Department of Corrections funds.

Given their concerns with Arkansas’ crime rate, we doubt they would, but the sword of Damocles will still hang over the Board’s head.

Two notable fights: as we pointed out on Twitter, the House very nearly failed to pass the Arkansas PBS appropriations bill. Legislators have expressed (unfounded) concern over certain programming and some of the agency’s expenditures. That said, we can’t say vehemently enough how important PBS is to rural communities.

As several representatives pointed out on the House floor, PBS is not just kids’ programming; it’s emergency services, teacher support, educational opportunities, and scholarships. We’re so grateful that enough legislators switched their votes after two (two!) failed votes, but the fact that this is even a question shows just how much the legislators focus on silly culture wars and not on doing what’s best for Arkansans.

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The last budget fight that has not been resolved: the Game and Fish Commission. House members failed to pass the appropriations bill at the very last second, so a special session before the end of the fiscal year is almost certain. Despite the fact the Senate produced a compromise bill in an effort to get the House on board, intransigent representatives frustrated at a proposed raise and the slowness of the appropriations process refused to pass the legislation. There’s some constitutional questions here as technically both chambers have to adjourn sine die (a fancy term that signifies the end of the session) at the same time, but only the Senate did so. This is still a developing story.

To be clear, if the Game and Fish appropriations doesn’t pass before the end of the fiscal year, it would have huge ramifications for the Natural State. This agency helps keep the state beautiful, manages natural areas like state parks and refuges, and helps ensure that tourists – a booming industry Sanders herself touts frequently – have somewhere lovely to visit when they come. Without this appropriation, the Commission would largely be hamstrung.

Overall, a 1.76% increase in the budget is ridiculously low. It doesn’t track with current inflation rates, there’s a risk Medicaid for the state will be underfunded as some folks kicked off in the “unwinding” get back on, and it doesn’t take into account a number of other concerns. The fact Sanders is proud of this is misguided at best.

The Pay Plan

Alongside the non-fiscal session crypto bills, legislators also approved a bill that would give state employees a 3% raise and lift the maximum salary caps for each pay grade by 10%. To be clear, this is not a raise – it just raises the maximum amount an employee can be paid before they move up in the scale. Hourly employees’ minimum wage will rise to $15, and exceptional employees can now receive “special compensation” – either cash bonuses or extra paid time off.

This bill is pretty good! State employees absolutely need a raise, and if the State Crime Lab’s difficulty in attracting qualified employees is any indication, these market adjustments are desperately needed.

Other Quick Hits

Legislators approved a half-million-dollar shift from the statewide medical data hub to a certified nurse-midwifery program in an effort to reduce the maternal mortality rate. We absolutely support the nurse-midwifery program – a great, data-driven way to help women and families across Arkansas – but taking the money from Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (ACHI) is absurd.

Legislators are mad at ACHI for essentially proving that COVID restrictions helped mitigate the spread of the disease and are looking for ways to punish the hub. Meanwhile, the state recently reported its first localized malaria case, so it seems like a bad time to cut funding for an agency that monitors infectious diseases.

Rep. Brian Evans (R-Cabot) won the House speakership vote by a substantial margin. After three terms, Matthew Shepherd announced he wouldn’t be seeking the Speakership again.

Lastly, a proposal to double funding for pregnancy care centers also advanced. While this sounds great, these centers are almost always religiously affiliated, push misinformation, and aren’t proven to be effective at reducing maternal mortality at all. They often refuse to provide certain kinds of contraception, for instance, claiming that it’s against their religious beliefs. That’s fine, of course, but such centers should receive a grand total of $0 from the state.

Our relatively hopeful takeaways from the crypto debacle: public outcry really can work; if we pressure our legislators to pass good policies that benefit us, not lobbyists (still looking at you, Rep. Ray and Sen. Bryant), we can have a say in how we’re governed beyond the ballot box.

Thanks for following our coverage. If there’s one thing we want to leave you with as the session wraps up, it’s this: pay attention. Shenanigans were tried because folks don’t often do so during these smaller sessions, but think back to the FOIA special session last year. People being loud and showing up saved a huge part of FOIA.

We have to keep showing up, Arkansas.