illustration of Sarah Huckabee Sanders on a wrecking ball
Mikael Space

With the 2023 legislative session blessedly at its end, Arkansas progressives (plus moderates and anyone to the left of the Proud Boys) know what complete and utter political defeat looks like. It’s this: tax cuts for the wealthy and out-of-state investors, even as children in the state go hungry; universal vouchers to subsidize wealthy families’ private school tuitions while denigrating and defunding the traditional public schools that educate the masses; no budging on a near-total abortion ban, not even for victims of incest or women carrying fetuses destined to die before birth or to suffer for only a few torturous hours beyond it; a barrage of new laws that do nothing but hammer home the message that transgender Arkansans are not welcome and will not be accommodated.

Supercharged by a mountain of MAGA money and an even bigger ego, Gov. Sarah Sanders called all the shots. The supermajority Republican legislature raced to do her bidding. Their rubber stamp on all of Sanders’ priorities (vouchers, prison expansion, tax cuts) marked a vast departure from the last administration, when Asa Hutchinson’s pro-gun, pro-life record failed to impress an increasingly insane right-wing extremist legislative branch. Where Hutchinson recoiled from drama, Sanders pursued it, eager to throw Trumpian blows of staggering cruelty if it landed her on Fox News. Her foot soldiers didn’t seem to mind Sanders’ obvious bid to get out of Arkansas and back on the national stage as soon as possible. It wouldn’t have mattered if they did. Republican lawmakers knew to expect a primary challenger to knock them out of office if they dared veer out of lockstep.


Saying it’s the worst session ever feels trite, too flip to capture the brutality heaped on all but the wealthiest and most insulated. Not only did lawmakers do nothing to protect Arkansans from our chart-topping gun death rates, they voted instead to protect the gun companies from us. A new law passed this session bars state entities from investing with firms that eschew the industry profiting off our homicide epidemic. Protecting children got lots of lip service, but no real action. Requiring proof of age and identity to get a social media account or view online porn, laws passed allegedly to protect kids, will be a boon for identity theft but won’t likely shield many innocent eyes. Threatening librarians with jail time if they allow young people to view or check out books about sex is not only a direct assault on free speech, but also a surefire way to maintain Arkansas’s spot as the state with the most teen pregnancies. 

Protecting kids was not a priority when lawmakers opted to sacrifice children to quell the labor shortage. The 94th General Assembly did away with a work permit requirement for 14- and 15-year-olds, meaning children can now get a job without their parents having to sign off and without any government oversight to make sure working conditions and hours are safe and appropriate. 


Arkansas’s wealthy and its businesses are safer than ever, having easily secured tax cuts by simply pointing fingers at transgender children and woke librarians, then grabbing the cash when no one was looking. Most of us didn’t get much of anything beyond the insult that the schools we send our children to — schools that anchor our communities — are hotbeds of inadequacy and indoctrination that anyone with the means should flee at their first opportunity. Is this really what Arkansas voted for? 


The Arkansas Capitol grounds will soon get a “monument to the unborn” thanks to a new law sponsored by Sen. Kim Hammer (R-Benton) and Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville), which allows  for private funds to pay for a monument dedicated to the embryos aborted when women still had bodily autonomy in Arkansas. Bentley promised the design would be “something beautifully done to honor precious children.” Several Republican opponents of abortion pushed back on the proposal, with one suggesting it had “the look and feel of spiking the football.” Rep. Cindy Crawford (R-Fort Smith), always ready with a comment so inane you wonder if you’re hearing things right, suggested we call on slaves for wisdom and guidance here. “You can ask slaves what happens when we forget. We have to remember slavery in America so it won’t come back. We have to remember abortion in Arkansas so it won’t come back. There’s no reason why we can’t have a monument. It’s not a poke in the eye; it’s a ‘God forgive us for what we have done.’ ”

Arkansas Bureau of Legislative Research
DEES IS NUTS: Siloam Springs Sen. Tyler Dees (right) passed laws requiring Arkansans to show ID to watch porn and create social media accounts.

In other culture war news, Arkansas will be the first state in the country to require users to show ID to create new social media accounts. Senate Bill 396, sponsored by Sen. Tyler Dees (R-Siloam Springs) and championed by the governor, will require social media companies to contract with third-party companies to perform age verification on new users. Those younger than 18 won’t be able to register for an account on the platforms without parents permission. How all that will work remains unclear. Dees repeatedly referenced Idemia, a third-party verifier based in France, as a good actor.

This legislature has done a lot of things that make little sense, but in the same breath that lawmakers talk about the national security concerns TikTok poses, they want Arkansans to give sensitive personal information to a foreign company?

Many legislators were told that Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, believes that there’s no way to comply with the law. The way it’s written, a private citizen can bring a legal claim against a social media company if their child gets an account without parental permission, but the soon-to-be law also forces third-party verifiers to delete personal information. So how could the social media company defend itself?

Dees also sponsored another similar new law that will require Arkansas residents to show ID to visit pornography websites. Let’s hope no one tells these guys how easy it is to pay $5 a month for VPN access to mask your location, thereby bypassing all of this nonsense. 


The economic cost of culture wars became briefly quantifiable during debate over a new law to require all state entities to divest from holdings with financial providers who consider ESG — environmental, social and governance — factors. It was sponsored by Rep. Jeff Wardlaw (R-Hermitage) and Sen. Ricky Hill (R-Cabot) and based on a model from the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Koch-funded right-wing bill factory. It’s also part of an increasingly activist turn for right-wing state treasurers, including Arkansas Treasurer Mark Lowery. Called the State Financial Officers Foundation, Lowery’s group aims to wield the power of the state to protect polluters from those forces attempting to save humanity by stopping climate change. Sure, the planet will die sooner if Lowery and his ilk succeed and states will sacrifice investment dollars for this newest version of corporate welfare, but the rich guys will go out on top. Similar laws have cost other states millions of dollars. 

The same sponsors also pushed through related legislation that requires all state contractors to pledge that they won’t boycott energy, fossil fuel, firearms or ammunition industries. After the bill was introduced, Arkansas Times publisher Alan Leveritt wrote a slightly tongue-in-cheek op-ed pledging to continue the Times’ long-standing policy of boycotting gun and fossil fuel industries by keeping our money in the bank. The new act is based on an existing law that requires contractors to pledge not to boycott Israel. The Times has refused to sign that pledge and unsuccessfully challenged its constitutionality in the federal court system.


Republican lawmakers hate that the Arkansas Constitution gives citizens the ability to propose laws and constitutional amendments for consideration on the ballot. The legislature tried to curb that power by referring to voters a constitutional amendment in 2020 that would have raised the threshold required to make the ballot, and another one in 2022 that would have required 60% of voters to approve constitutional amendments for them to pass. Both proposals failed handily with voters, who recognized these amendments for what they were: a power grab by legislators to weaken the power of the people. 

Unfettered, this session Republicans passed a clearly unconstitutional new law that increases the number of counties from which signatures for a ballot initiative or constitutional amendment must be submitted, upping that number from 15 to 50. The state Constitution specifically says “at least 15 counties,” which merely sets the floor required, sponsor Sen. Jim Dotson (R-Bentonville) said. Just like many other things that are silent in the constitution, here the legislature can step in and make laws, he argued.

But Sen. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock), who should have been paid by the hour for all the legal advice he was forced to dispense to his know-nothing colleagues, said he believed this was among the most blatantly unconstitutional bills he’d ever seen during his time in the ledge, including bills that were inviting constitutional challenges. The “at least 15 counties” language in the Constitution clearly means that “you don’t have to stop at 15” when gathering signatures. He also noted that while Dotson is correct that when the Constitution is silent, the legislature can make laws, in this case, Article 5, Section 1 of the Constitution explicitly says that unwarranted restrictions are prohibited.

Other anti-democracy bills aimed to make voting less convenient and less comfortable in hopes of convincing more people to give up on the American experiment entirely. “Election integrity” is code for “voter suppression,” and Arkansas Republicans touted election integrity all over the place as they carried on with their years-long campaign to make it harder to get your ballot counted. 

Act 544 by Rep. Austin McCollum (R-Bentonville) and Sen. Jim Petty (R-Van Buren) creates a so-called election integrity unit within the attorney general’s office to further police the polls, adding  new layers of red tape and intimidation. Because the AG is a partisan official, the measure further politicizes the management of our elections and delivers another unfair advantage to Republicans, who are quite skilled at using their power to keep challengers at bay.

Arkansas lawmakers also pushed some cookie-cutter legislation crafted by out-of-state groups as part of their ongoing “stop the steal” disinformation campaign. Sen. Tyler Dees (R-Siloam Springs) carried the water on a bill outlawing ballot collection boxes in Arkansas, just in case anybody ever thinks about putting one up. We don’t have them here, even though they’ve worked well in other states. National voter suppression groups shopped the same bill to outlaw ballot collection boxes in South Dakota, Virginia, Ohio, Kansas and Arizona. Absentee voters routinely send ballots through the mail, and Dees was unable to answer questions about how ballot drop boxes were more susceptible to fraud than the U.S. Postal Service. His bill passed into law anyway.


With a near-total abortion ban in place after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision in 2022, women in Arkansas find themselves in even worse shape than before. Arkansas had the highest maternal mortality rate of any state before the ban, and without access to abortion care, more women stand to suffer and die.

Amazingly, Arkansas lawmakers failed to come through on the paltry handful of small-potatoes bills that aimed to help keep mothers and babies alive and healthy. Most of these measures are low-hanging fruit and already standard practice in other states. But the Republican supermajority at the Arkansas Capitol failed to make maternal health a priority, dedicating their time instead to heaping shame on public school teachers and transgender children.

A plan to add Arkansas to the list of states that provide Medicaid for new mothers for a full year after birth went nowhere. Thirty-two states plus Washington, D.C., already tap into federal dollars to help make sure new moms with scant financial resources are covered through that tumultuous year after pregnancy and birth. Ten more states have plans in the works to extend coverage beyond the minimum 60 days federal law requires. If any state needs to add this tool to its arsenal, it’s us. Arkansas is the most dangerous state in the country for expectant women, with high poverty rates and an undeniable need for more support for new moms. Rep. Aaron Pilkington (R-Knoxville) sponsored the bill to extend Medicaid coverage for new mothers, but the committee never even bothered to take it up. Aptly enough, this change that would cost less than $2 million and would definitely save lives got no attention from lawmakers and was left to die in committee. That $2 million savings the state will realize by letting new mothers’ health coverage lapse is enough to offset only a drop in the bucket of tax breaks legislators granted to the wealthy this session.

Women carrying fetuses cursed to suffer and die got a similar F.U. from Arkansas lawmakers this session. Rep. Nicole Clowney (D-Fayetteville) represented the will of the majority of Arkansans who, polls show, support exemptions to Arkansas’s near-total abortion ban. Her effort to change the law to reflect Arkansas’s wishes tanked in the face of bullying from the Christian soldiers who claim to know what is best for everyone. Women carrying a fetus that will die before birth or suffer for a few hours or days before dying after birth will still have no choice but to carry the baby to term.

Rep. Ashley Hudson (D-Little Rock) mounted a similar failing effort with a bill to let women who become pregnant through rape or incest access abortion. In this post-apocalyptic wasteland of reproductive rights, it’s unclear whether we should consider it a small victory or an utter defeat that Hudson did get one pregnancy-related bill passed. Her House Bill 1161 ensuring the school days teenagers miss to have babies count as excused absences is now signed into law.


The Arkansas LEARNS universal voucher bill to sacrifice Arkansas students and communities at the altar of right-wing ideology might or might not be the biggest travesty of the session, but it’s likely the one whose harm will spread the farthest, the fastest. A Waltonite lobbyist’s dream of a law based on the demonstrably false premise that the school choice tide will raise all schools’ boats, Arkansas LEARNS will subsidize the private school tuition payments of wealthy families at the expense of traditional public schools that serve all students. By giving parents with the time, money and know-how enough public cash to get their children into private schools and away from us riffraff, the state’s new universal voucher program will send us back to Arkansas’s shameful days of segregated classrooms. 

Brian Chilson
LEARNS WILL LEAD TO SEGREGATION: But Republican lawmakers, who with few exceptions supported the omnibus bill, don’t care.

But it’s not all bad. Arkansas LEARNS’ high points include a minimum $50,000-a-year salary for every public school teacher in Arkansas, and $2,000 raises for educators already over $50K. That’s where they leave you, though. LEARNS repeals the state salary schedule which, to be fair, was almost wholly under the $50K mark, anyway. But now, without state-funded step increases, only districts with tax bases robust enough to foot the bill will be able to give annual raises based on service and education. The state will fund some merit-based bonuses instead, but there’s not much cash set aside for this, not even enough for a single teacher at every Arkansas public school to earn the maximum $10,000 bonus. It will be difficult for poorer districts to entice teachers into a career with no real prospects of a raise, ever.

Plenty of educators applaud the literacy component of Arkansas LEARNS, but bristle at the characterization that the state’s third-grade literacy rates indicate “we have failed our children.” Only 35% of Arkansas third-graders are proficient readers. In Massachusetts, the top state for third-grade literacy, 44% score as proficient or higher. Arkansas LEARNS calls for third-graders in public schools to be held back until they can reach reading proficiency (or until they transfer to a private school or homeschool with no such requirement).

To improve literacy, Arkansas LEARNS includes plans for more reading coaches, plus some money for tutoring programs. Not enough, but some.  

The rest of the 144-page bill has less to like. Arkansas hasn’t gone in for these gigantic, all-in-one, D.C.-style omnibus bills in sessions past, and for good reason. I like 60-70% of the bill, Sen. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville) said, but a cheeseburger that’s 30% poison is still a bad cheeseburger.

Leding was being generous with his percentages. Some consider the repeal of the Fair Teacher Dismissal Act that protected teachers from petty, political or personal retribution to be the poison pill that makes LEARNS simply untenable. For others, the “don’t say gay” component forbidding teachers to acknowledge the existence of anyone not straight and cisgender until middle school is enough to tank the whole deal. Or maybe sending public money to fund private schools that are by definition exclusionary and unaccountable is the arsenic in the well. 

The vast majority of vouchers in states with universal voucher programs like the one codified in Arkansas LEARNS goes to families who were already paying their own private school tuitions just fine but certainly aren’t going to turn down a windfall. 

Only the kids at the bottom of that system will be saddled with a new graduation requirement that sounds a lot like the criminal sentence for a first-time DWI offense. With the passage of LEARNS, all public school students will have to put in 75 hours of community service to graduate. Proponents argue that 75 will be easy because high school students can answer phones in the school office or provide unpaid, coerced labor to small businesses. Not surprisingly, private school students are exempt from such requirements, meaning their spring break ski trips and horseback riding lessons are safe from any interruption. Any student who takes a LEARNS voucher but fails to meet the new private school’s academic expectations can get kicked out of not just the school, but the voucher program entirely. Crafters of this bill determined the rightful consequence for such a lapse is a return to public schools, which don’t have the option of booting poor performers. It’s barbs like this one that suggest attending public schools is a punishment, along with LEARNS sponsors’ oddly venomous accusations that public school teachers are indoctrinators and liars, that make lead sponsor Sen. Breanne Davis’ (R-Russellville)pledges that she has teachers’ backs ring hollow. Scheduling the Senate’s only public hearing on the bill for a school day, then joining Sanders staffers in attacking teachers for taking a day off to be there to testify, felt shady, too. 

It’s notable that the educators who stand to earn sizable raises are the plan’s most outspoken opponents. During the two marathon days of public comment on the bill, only three of the dozens of public school educators who gave testimony were there in support. A coalition of teachers and other public education supporters are attempting to repeal the LEARNS Act by referendum; others are planning legal challenges.

The Marvell-Elaine School District became the first led into a privatization scheme under LEARNS. Trapped between consolidating with another district because of its low enrollment numbers or going under state control because of low scores, the district is now the first to choose door number three, making plans to hand over the reins to a yet-unnamed outside entity.

Will Marvell-Elaine ever get the district back into local hands? Sen. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) and Rep. Vivian Flowers (D-Pine Bluff), both of whose home school districts have fallen victim to state takeover, scored the rare moderate win this session with the commonsense Senate Bill 364. Now Act 633, the measure limits the time the state can keep their hold on districts to a firm five years before releasing them back into a local school board’s hands. What about Marvell-Elaine, though? Does the new legislation apply here, or can the charter company stay in charge? Florida man and Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva suggested such questions are now a matter of local control.

Brian Chilson
LEARNS WILL LEAD TO SEGREGATION: But Republican lawmakers, who with few exceptions supported the omnibus bill, don’t care.


The church lady caucus came in hot for the 2023 session, gunning to protect innocent eyes from lewd and lascivious drag shows. Republican morality police duo Rep. Mary Bentley of Perryville and Sen. Gary Stubblefield of Branch humiliated themselves with their sophomoric stabs at drag shows that almost certainly never happened. Bentley claimed a good Christian family asked for her help after seeing a drag queen wield a dildo as a microphone during a parade. Stubblefield claimed it was a drag queen who implored him most passionately to save the children from all the jumping up and gyrating that goes on at drag shows.

Of course, drag is a form of artistic expression that spans cultures and centuries, and our Constitution protects it. A legal case against the original drag show ban bill would have been a slam dunk. Bentley’s and Stubblefield’s attempts to regulate drag shows like they were peep shows or porn shops was eventually so watered down that it does nothing at all. 

Still, LGBTQ+ Arkansans and the people who love them took plenty of hits this session. As we await a ruling from U.S. District Judge James Moody on a challenge to the 2021 ban on medical gender-affirming care for Arkansas youth, legislators hedged their bets by piling on more impediments. Lawmakers passed a bill that adds new restrictions on access to gender-affirming care for people under 18 and creates debilitating malpractice liabilities for any medical providers involved. 

Brian Chilson

Pegging bathroom bills as the nonsensical economy killers they are, the Arkansas business community saved us from such legislation in the past. They dropped the ball this year, though, sticking Arkansas with two humiliating hate laws targeting any trans person who happens to be in Arkansas when nature calls. A bill that would have made it a sex crime for a transgender person to be in a bathroom when anyone under 18 was also present nearly passed, but a commonsense suggestion added at the last minute — on the suggestion of a dad of a transgender youth — adds the caveat that the adult in this situation would have to be in the bathroom for the purpose of sexual gratification. The law passed, which is redundant since peeping tom and sexual assault laws are already on the books. Transgender kids’ bathroom habits also got a creepy amount of attention from lawmakers. Arkansas’s public school educators will now have to police bathrooms lest a trans person uses the facilities corresponding with his/her/their gender.

And speaking of pronouns, it’s probably best that we find a way to work around them entirely, as Rep. Wayne Long (R-Bradford) was successful in passing his Given Name Act. A plug-and-play piece of legislation crafted by the anti-trans hate group Alliance Defending Freedom, this new law that right-wingers are shopping to red legislatures across the country polices what teachers can and cannot call their students. A signed permission slip from parents will be required before teachers can show their students the respect of using preferred names and pronouns.


Same song, new verse: Lawmakers passed yet another tax cut that overwhelmingly benefits the wealthy, which Sanders has framed as a first step toward eliminating the income tax altogether. Retroactive to Jan. 1, the state’s top income tax rate will drop from 4.9% to 4.7%, which follows a steep reduction of the top rate — from 5.5% to 4.9% — by the legislature in a 2022 special session. Under the new plan, the top corporate tax rate would drop from 5.3% to 5.1%. Combined, the cuts will reduce state revenue by an estimated $124 million per year.

Brian Chilson
RICH GET RICHER: Gov. Sarah Sanders, House Speaker Matthew Shepherd (left) and Sen. Jonathan Dismang pushed through another tax break for wealthy Arkansans and out-of-state corporate shareholders.

The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimates 80% of the benefits of the income tax cut will go to the top 20% of earners and that $20 million of the $24 million corporate tax cut will go to out-of-state shareholders. 

The legislature also approved a phase-out of the state’s “throwback rule,” which required sales that multistate corporations based in Arkansas make in other states or to the federal government that aren’t taxable to be “thrown back” to Arkansas for tax purposes. The change will ultimately reduce state revenue by $74 million in fiscal year 2030 and beyond.

That $74 million would have been more than enough to cover free school lunches for every student in the state and a full year of Medicaid coverage after birth to ensure the health of new mothers, and we would still have tens of millions to spare. It’s all about priorities, and in Arkansas, corporate profits for out-of-state investors trump the wellbeing of our own mothers and children.


Arkansas already has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and it’s not working: The state also has one of the country’s highest crime rates. But solving difficult problems has never been in modern Arkansas Republicans’ wheelhouse. So while the likes of Texas and Oklahoma are embracing economically and ethically wise reform to reduce their prison populations, Arkansas plans to build a new nearly-half-billion-dollar prison and keep offenders locked up longer. The “Protect Arkansas Act,” sponsored by Sen. Ben Gilmore (R-Crossett) and Rep. Jimmy Gazaway (R-Paragould) and crafted with heavy input by Attorney General Tim Griffin, will eliminate parole for the most serious felonies and require those who commit other serious crimes to serve 85% of their sentence.  

Sanders and Griffin said that the new prison would allow county jails, which for years have housed overflow state prisoners, to go back to serving local communities. Griffin said misdemeanor justice had been effectively removed from the state criminal code because of the county jail backup, but now we will have room to lock up the scofflaws once again.

“I was going to Chick-fil-A the other day,” Griffin said at a press conference announcing the plans, “and there were people riding wheelies on dirt bikes — and I love dirt bikes — riding wheelies on dirt bikes that aren’t street legal with no helmets … If you think you’re going to get jobs to come to this state with that kind of nonsense going on, you’re sadly mistaken.”


Arkansas’s booming solar industry will see a slowdown thanks to a new law. Senate Bill 295, sponsored by Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy) and Rep. Lanny Fite (R-Benton), will end Arkansas’s one-to-one net-metering policy, where customers who generate electricity, usually with solar arrays, get credited at the full retail rate for any excess power they generate. Instead, solar customers would only get credited for the wholesale rate. The difference today would amount to about 5 cents per kilowatt hour.

Brian Chilson
FITE-ING SOLAR PROGRESS: Benton Republican Rep. Lanny Fite carried water for Entergy and other electrical utilities with a bill that will hamper Arkansas’s booming solar industry.

After negotiations with the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association, the bill was amended to grandfather solar projects into existing net-metering policy until Sept. 30, 2024. It also caps the project size at 5 megawatts and allows the solar array to be located within 100 miles of the location of the business that owns the array (Little Rock-based Central Arkansas Water’s solar system, for instance, is located in Cabot).

Dismang said that in 2019, when the legislature passed a law that allowed net metering, then-Public Service Commission Chairman Ted Thomas admitted that net metering would lead to what’s known as cost shifting, where the expense of utilities having to pay the retail rate for excess solar generation gets passed along to customers without solar. He said Thomas promised lawmakers that within six months the PSC would evaluate the cost shifting, but failed to follow through.

Thomas, in fiery testimony in House and Senate committees during this session, acknowledged that promise, but said that Entergy and the electric co-ops had never demonstrated that cost-shifting amounted to anything significant. The Arkansas Court of Appeals has also upheld the net-metering rate structure.


A commonsense bill by Dismang and Rep. DeAnn Vaught (R-Horatio) to ensure that any student who qualifies for reduced-price school meals would get them for free sailed through the ledge. But another proposal from Dismang aimed at helping the working poor was amended to be almost meaningless after Sanders dissed the original. 

Arkansas is one of only a handful of states with restrictive asset limits from supplemental nutrition assistance payments (SNAP, or what used to be known as food stamps). SNAP eligibility is based on family income, but Arkansas additionally limits recipients based on their savings. If you’ve got more than $2,250 in assets, you won’t qualify. Dismang’s bill initially would have raised the asset limit to $12,500, a move that would have given families the breathing room to save up for a car, education expenses or a deposit on a better place to live without having to starve. Gov. Sanders’ spokeswoman, Alexa Henning, announced Sanders’ opposition early in the process: “We oppose expanding welfare and trapping more people in lifetime dependency that is paid for by the labor of hardworking taxpayers.” The bill then got amended to raise the asset limit to $5,500 if the federal government approves a waiver request from the state.