OK, the state legislature did pass some good bills. Number one: The General Assembly did not dismantle the private option expansion of Medicaid, a benefit to hundreds of thousands of Arkansans who previously did not have health insurance. We are NOT building a $100 million new prison, and the parole budget was increased. The ledge gave pre-K education a tiny bump in funding, something that hadn’t happened for seven years. It made it a felony to rehome adopted children, though it did not reprimand the man who made the need for the law clear, Rep. Justin Harris (R-West Fork), whose decision to rehome his adopted daughters ended in the rape of a 5-year-old.
The legislature also turned back a couple of awful bills, including HB 1228, the “Religious Freedom Restoration” law that would have spelled out the right of individuals, corporations and other “legal entities” to discriminate against gays, lesbians and transgender people under cover of religious belief, though only because Gov. Asa Hutchinson told lawmakers he wouldn’t sign unless it was amended to mirror federal law. A somewhat less objectionable version won the governor’s signature. Another good kill: HB 1733, which would have allowed the state Department of Education to contract with a not-for-profit to create a fire-at-will “Achievement School District” that would remove due process rights for teachers and administrators.
There were other decent laws created this session, on workforce education, energy and more, and other dangerous or kooky stuff rejected. (We will not be banning the importation of California wine after all.) But far too much of the legislation produced this session will negatively affect the people of Arkansas. The actions of the 90th General Assembly, taken as a whole, will widen inequality between rich and poor, bleed vital community services of resources, spit in the face of ethics and transparency and generate pointless constitutional lawsuits at taxpayer expense.
Here’s a list of some of the damage. Unfortunately, it’s not comprehensive.
Why: SO MILLIONAIRES CAN PAY LOWER TAXES
People who make their income from paychecks, not investments. Just keep this figure in mind over the next couple of years as you hear about all the things the state supposedly can’t afford: $11 million. That’s how much it cost us to fully restore a capital gains tax cut, which had previously been partially suspended to make way for the governor’s tax cuts for the middle class. But then, in the last weeks of the session, the General Assembly decided to restore the full capital gains cut, which accrues overwhelmingly to the wealthiest of Arkansans. (For example, any capital gains over the $10 million mark are entirely free of taxes.)
People in rural areas seeking medical treatment. To help pay for the capital gains break, the state’s Health Department lost a total of $4.9 million for Community Health Centers, 101 clinics in 12 regions that serve people who live in places like Hampton or the wilds of Newton County, where the nearest doctor is many miles away. That’s about half the budget for such clinics, which will have to cut staff, reduce the number of days they’re open, suspend dental services and so on. What, you say? Didn’t Medicaid expansion take care of the insurance problem? Why, no. The private option is great — for example, it reduced the number of uninsured patients in Lee County by 58 percent — but for various reasons, a quarter of the patients who get their care at Community Health Centers still have no insurance. Some make too much to qualify for expanded Medicaid but can’t afford to buy insurance. Others don’t know about the private option — maybe because the Obama-hating legislature killed funding to inform people about the new affordable insurance.
Readers. If you live in rural Arkansas and rely on your library for books, Internet access and all the other things libraries offer, you can thank the General Assembly for a 13 to 25 percent reduction in state dollars. During the eight years Gov. Mike Beebe was in office, the public school fund’s state library allocation stood at $5.7 million. Gov. Asa Hutchinson kept it at that amount in his original budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year. But then came the capital gains tax cut (see above).
Old folks and caregivers looking to Area Agencies on Aging for help. The Department of Human Services’ Aging and Adult Services took a $1 million hit from the legislature, or 20 percent of the original $5 million allocation for the program. Aging and Adult Services fund the state’s eight Area Agencies on Aging. The agencies use these dollars for meals, transportation and wellness services; Carelink in Pulaski and five other Central Arkansas counties alone will take a $197,000 hit.
Folks who make less than $21,000 a year. Unlike taxpayers who made between $21,000 and $75,000 (or $150,000 for married couples filing separately) and really fat cats who got a capital gains tax cut, the working poor got zip in the way of tax relief. Here are the numbers: 540,000 Arkansans who earned less than $21,000 — that’s about 40 percent of the population — paid $115 million in state income taxes. That same year, those who made between $5 million and $10 million paid $66 million. Arkansas ranks 11th nationally in the tax burden it puts on the poor. The ledge couldn’t even bring itself to pass a state earned income tax credit proposed by Rep. Warwick Sabin to help the working poor.
Why: SO WOMEN CAN BE FORCED INTO MOTHERHOOD
People who have uteruses and are of childbearing age.Should a woman wish to exercise her right not to give birth, she will, 48 hours before a procedure to terminate her pregnancy, be given the name of the physician who will perform the procedure and be subjected to a barrage of information on what it means to abort a fetus, as if she were too stupid to understand what she is doing.
She’ll be given information from the state Health Department on the dangers of abortion (though not the greater dangers of carrying a child to term) and information on what the fetus probably looks like based on gestational age, along with a “realistic” picture. She’ll be told that the father is liable for child support (though he may not have a penny) and that at 20 weeks a fetus can feel pain (an unproven theory). The woman will have to give the state Health Department a signed checklist indicating she’s gotten all this information 48 hours before the procedure. All ultrasound images, test results and forms will go into her medical record, where it will be available for inspection by the Health Department.
Rural women who need an abortion. Live in rural Arkansas and need to end an early pregnancy? There’s a simple answer: Telemedicine, in which a doctor remotely authorizes use of a two-stage medicine regimen to terminate a pregnancy. But the legislature has preemptively decided to stick it to women who live far from abortion providers in Arkansas by making sure telemedicine for abortion is never available in Arkansas.
Minor girls who want an abortion. Seventeen years old and find yourself pregnant? Not only do you have to get consent from a parent or guardian to have an abortion, you’ve got to bring that parent with you, and the parent has to bring two forms of documentation to prove that they are your parent. Otherwise, you’ll have to go to court in your home county and announce that you are pregnant, though proceedings will be kept secret.
People in need of sex education and information on sexually transmitted diseases. Sen. Gary Stubblefield’s (R-Branch) bill to deny all state aid to Planned Parenthood, even though none of it is used for abortion, finally passed this session. The bill failed in 2013, but this session the legislature decided posturing is more important than preventive health care.
Why: TO SAVE STATE MONEY BY MAKING MOTHERS GO BACK TO WORK
Mothers who work for the state. A Senate committee killed a bill that would have given female state employees six weeks’ paid maternity leave, a plan that would have cost the state all of $350,000. (Again, remember that capital gains tax cut: $11 million) The four senators who killed the bill in committee — John Cooper (R-Jonesboro), Scott Flippo (R-Mountain Home), Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch) and Cecile Bledsoe (R-Rogers) — also voted for bills making it harder for women to get a medical abortion.
Why: TO KEEP THE GAYS DOWN WITH ‘RELIGIOUS FREEDOM’ LAW
Folks who fear they’ll lose their jobs because of how God made them. Forget asking your city council for an ordinance to keep your employer from firing you because you happen to be gay or transgender. The legislature, led by Sen. “I’m not mean” Bob Ballinger (R-Hindsville) and Sen. Bart “men will pee in front of 7 year olds if anti-discrimination laws are enacted” Hester (R-Cave Springs), made their detestation of gay folk crystal clear with SB 202, which prohibits municipalities from enacting laws to protect LGBT citizens.
The judicial system. The compromise “religious freedom” bill (formerly HB 1228) was made less harmful, but it still provides the potential for all manner of lawsuits to be brought against state or local government. If a professor at a public university flunks a student because he refuses to read “The Voyage of the Beagle” or the poetry of Sappho, has the professor infringed on his rights? Maybe we’ll find out.
Why: TO VIOLATE RELIGIOUS FREEDOM BY ERECTING THE TEN COMMANDMENTS ON THE STATE CAPITOL GROUNDS
Folks who don’t want government to hold itself out as an authority on sin, much less quote scripture from a particular sacred text. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on this one, but it doesn’t matter to the legislature. While the state will have to pick up the tab for the inevitable lawsuit over SB 939, those who voted for it will get to preen about their holiness. Think you’ll be seeing the Bhagavad Gita on the lawn anytime soon?
Why: TO KEEP MONEY IN POLITICS SECRET
Voters. Freshman Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) sought to require outside entities that create “electioneering communications” to disclose the cost of TV advertisements to the secretary of state, just like regular campaign expenditures. A House committee said oooh, no, don’t want to discourage donors. So Tucker said, OK, let’s at least stop outside groups from coordinating with a candidate on an ad. Remember then-candidate Leslie Rutledge’s appearance last fall in an advertisement paid for by the Republican Attorneys General Association? Republicans in the Senate killed the bill.
Folks who want to know who’s paying whom to run for office.Jana Della Rosa, a Republican representative from Rogers, filed an ethics bill that would have required electronic filing of campaign finance reports, making it vastly easier to compile information about exactly who is funding whom. Online reporting is already required by 40 other states, but Arkansas is different. House opponents could only come up with jokes as reasons to vote against, since the truth would not be nice. “I may not be smart enough to do this online,” Rep. Dave Wallace (R-Leachville) said. Ha, ha.
Arkansans who want lawmakers who aren’t on the take. Springdale Republican Sen. Jon Woods’ little ol’ bill helps his pals get away with accepting illegal gifts by giving them 30 days to repay the cost of a gift (if someone has found out about it by then), keeps the swill coming with lobbyist-paid working lunches and trips, allows nepotism, lets legislators sit on boards of directors (because who would believe these fine lawmakers would be influenced?) and permits campaigning at the state Capitol by parking their bumper stickers and decals on four wheels in taxpayer-paid slots.
Arkansans who believed Asa Hutchinson when he said there would be no pork. Never mind. The state budget puts $20 million in the General Improvement Fund bucket for legislators to buy favors with back home. Some pork is good, if spent on things like, for example, public libraries that got the shaft in the budget. Some pork is bad, like the Fourth of July fireworks show in Benton that was a Republican campaign event. But hypocrisy always smells like a pig pen.
Why: BECAUSE WE DON’T RESPECT HIGHER EDUCATION
College-bound students. The legislature decided to lower scholarships funded by the Arkansas Lottery (a terrible source in the first place) from $2,000 to $1,000 for freshmen. The scholarship once was $5,000 a year, but, as predicted, interest in playing a fool’s game has waned and so has scholarship funding.
Why: TO BENEFIT BUSINESS TO THE DETRIMENT OF INDIVIDUALS
Arkansans suffering from mesothelioma. HB 1529 protects one company, Crown Cork & Seal, which owns an insulation company, from liability in lawsuits by people — many veterans working around military equipment — suffering from mesothelioma because of exposure to asbestos. Crown Cork & Seal has paid out millions in other states. Not here, baby.
Taxpayers who don’t want to give public money to private corporations. The House approved Senate Joint Resolution 16 to put on the November 2016 general election ballot a constitutional amendment to remove the cap from amount of bonds the state can issue to finance private industrial development. Even a couple of Republicans, Reps. Doug House (R-North Little Rock) and Nate Bell (R-Mena), howled that it was corporate welfare. Bell went so far as to call it “morally repugnant.” So it passed 70-22.
Taxpayers who don’t want to subsidize local chambers of commerce. Also the doing of SJR 16.
Property owners whose land could be damaged by pipeline construction. Rep. Warwick Sabin (D-Little Rock) introduced a bill to require pipeline companies to give notice to landowners of potential seizure of their lands (under eminent domain), pay for damage incurred during surveys and obtain an environmental permit. “Are you kidding?” his colleagues asked. (Yet, clean energy power lines — those transmitting wind energy — can’t be allowed. Could this be because coal burners can put more heat on your Republican legislators than you can?)
Why: BECAUSE RACISM STILL EXISTS
Those who’d like to see the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. celebrated separately from Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. One man stood for freedom for all Americans. The other led the battle to preserve slavery. When a committee took up Mena Republican Rep. Nate Bell’s bill to separate the holidays, there was a lot of palaver about “heritage” and “ancestry” and one witness from the Sons of Confederate Veterans said he was proud to call “colored” men his brothers as he urged defeat of the bill. There you go. Bill failed.
Why: PURE MEANNESS
If you are poor enough to qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Because the legislature thinks poor people ought to be punished for being poor, it enacted a pilot program requiring applicants for TANF in certain counties to take a drug test before they can get assistance. It will cost more than it will save, evidence from other states shows, but it will let some legislators brag that they put the screws to all those doper pregnant women and young children who benefit from TANF.
If you get your health care through the private option. State Rep. Donnie “Boo!” Copeland schemed to a) scare the bejeezus out of poor Arkansans and b) fool his uninformed constituents into thinking that the legislature killed Obamacare, and the legislature and governor went along with it. His bill requires the state Department of Human Services to send out a notification to Arkansans covered under the private option that their health care coverage ends Dec. 16, 2016. Baloney. Copeland knows that Gov. Hutchinson’s health care task force has been directed to figure out by the end of 2015 a plan to continue health insurance to the more than 250,000 Arkansans who rely on the private option as is now configured.
If you were a minor convicted of capital murder. A 14-year-old in Mississippi County was in a car waiting outside a store during a robbery when his cousin shot the clerk. The teenager earned his capital murder charge, but was it right to sentence him to life with no possibility of parole? A bill by Rep. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville), who thought a parole hearing after 30 years served would not be considered soft on crime, failed after Rep. Dave “I may not be smart enough to report my campaign contributions online” Wallace objected to Leding’s referring to the 14-year-old as a “child.” He preferred “killer.”
People on death row who don’t want to take a half hour to die. Lawsuit time! Republican Rep. Douglas House’s bill to restart execution in Arkansas by expanding the permissable list of drugs used in lethal injections. This would put the state back in the execution business. But wait: The bill allows the Department of Correction to keep its suppliers secret. That is in direct conflict with an agreement signed by the attorney general to settle a suit by Jeff Rosenzweig that would make information on the suppliers public. Rosenzweig has filed suit challenging the new law.
A previous version of this story erroneously said that the 90th General Assembly passed a law that required state college campuses to allow staff to carry concealed weapons. That bill stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee.