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Arkansas Advocates 2021 Legislative Session Recap, Vol. 8

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Arkansas Advocates 2021 Legislative Session Recap, Vol. 8

This week a state legislator jokingly wrote that a stair is added to the Capitol steps each day the General Assembly is in session. But all jokes aside, the 93rd General Assembly is currently set to end April 9 (though they could change that date if needed), and a rush to file bills is underway.

A potential overhaul of Arkansas’s Medicaid Expansion program was big news this week. We are studying the bill closely and have many questions to protect the Arkansans who are covered by it. Next week, watch for renters’ rights bills and legislation important to immigrant children in our public schools.

Below is an overview of bills that Arkansas Advocates either supports or opposes that were filed or that made progress this week, or that are on next week’s legislative calendar. We are monitoring many more bills, listed and frequently updated on our website. More information on AACF’s overall legislative priorities is here.

Updates on some of the bills AACF supports

Democracy and Voting Rights

To be amended/Scheduled: HB 1517, sponsored by Rep. Justin Boyd and Sen. Breanne Davis, was re-referred to the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs, so the bill sponsor can make an amendment. The bill, which would allow people to register to vote online, is scheduled to be heard on Monday, March 8.

Health Care

Amended/Scheduled: This week, HB 1176, sponsored by Reps. Lee Johnson and Aaron Pilkington, along with Sen. Breanne Davis, was amended and re-referred to the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee, where it will be heard on Monday, March 8. The bill would authorize Arkansas Medicaid to keep the behavioral and mental health services telemedicine changes made during the pandemic and make them permanent. It also would ensure that providers will continue to be paid for providing telemedicine services to people receiving Medicaid. The amendment would keep telemedicine reimbursements for Medicaid providers in place for behavioral and mental health services, considering the governor having lifted some regulations related to the pandemic last week. The amendment also declares an emergency to make the act effective on the date of approval.

Immigrant Families

Now Law: SB 287, sponsored by Sen. Bart Hester and Rep. Clint Penzo, was signed by Gov. Hutchinson on Monday and is now Act 217. The new law will allow recipients of certain state-funded scholarships to include lawful permanent residents, those with visas and those who are migrants from Compact of Free Association islands, such as the Marshall Islands. Until now, only citizens could obtain those scholarships.

Introduced: On Tuesday, Rep. DeeAnn Vaught and Sen. Lance Eads filed HB 1594, which would allow immigrants who are lawfully residing in the United States under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status — commonly referred to as DACA — to obtain teaching licenses in Arkansas. It has been assigned to the House Education Committee and may be put on the agenda next Thursday.

Juvenile Justice

Introduced: Sen. Alan Clark filed SB 455 on Tuesday. Under current Arkansas law, juvenile courts are allowed to levy a wide range of fees and fines for juveniles in the courts, and families can be required to pay out of pocket for services including, but not limited to: cost of counsel; probation and supervision; diversion and treatment services. This bill would eliminate these fees and fines. It would also ensure that certain services are available at no cost to juveniles or parents, including: educational opportunities while juveniles are in state custody, diversion alternatives, the cost of attorneys, and other services; and would waive any fees and fines that have already been levied on families. It has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

K-12 Education

Now Law: HB 1029, sponsored by Rep. Fred Allen and Sen. Linda Chesterfield, passed the Senate on Monday and is now Act 259. The new law adds John Walker to the list of civil rights leaders in the teaching materials regarding African American history in public schools. John W. Walker (1937-2019) was a lawyer who emerged from segregated schools and society in southwestern Arkansas to wage a 60-year war on discrimination in Arkansas’s education systems, public institutions and workforce. From 2011 until his death, Walker was a member of the Arkansas House of Representatives. He received numerous awards during his lifetime and was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.

Now Law: HB 1102, sponsored by Rep. Brian Evans and Sen. James Sturch, is now Act 182. The new law requires additional training and information for public school board members on school safety and student discipline and mandates additional school district reporting requirements in this area.

Scheduled: SB 314, filed by Sen. Joyce Elliott and Rep. Andrew Collins, is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Education Committee on Monday, March 8. This bill would require that a public school district be returned to full local control if the district has been under the authority of the state board for five years; and has democratically elected a public school board during a special election or an annual school election. However, this law does not prevent the State Board of Education from returning the public school district back to local control in less than five years. The biggest and most immediate impact of this law is that it would require that the Little Rock School District be returned to full local control.

Progressed/Scheduled: Sen. Missy Irvin and Rep. Lee Johnson’s SB 291 passed the Senate Committee on Education on Wednesday. The bill defines characteristics and strategies for community schools; defines responsibilities of community school coordinators; defines a community school plan; outlines assistance that the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education may provide to community schools; would give the State Board of Education the authority to require public school districts in need of Level 5 Intensive Support to develop a system of whole-child supports through a community school plan; would allow public school charters to be designated as community schools; and would allow public school charters to include in their plans for academic achievement the implementation of a community school plan. It is scheduled to be heard by the full Senate on Monday, March 8.

Progressed/Scheduled: Sen. Jane English’s SB 31 passed the House Education Committee on Thursday and is scheduled to be heard by the full House on Monday, March 8. The bill would amend the components of the college and career assessments by including assessments that lead to a nationally recognized work readiness certificate.

Progressed: SB 107, co-sponsored by Sen. Jane English and Rep. DeAnn Vaught, passed the Senate on Monday. The bill would require that (1) each public high school provide a high-quality computer science class tailored to meet the needs of each participating student and (2) each public high school to employ a computer science teacher. The bill is now assigned to the House Committee on Education.

Race Equity

Amended: Rep. Vivian Flowers’ HJR 1021 was amended on Thursday to add a number of bipartisan co-sponsors in both the House and the Senate. This proposed constitutional amendment would fully abolish slavery in Arkansas. It would repeal the part of the Arkansas Constitution that allows slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime. It states that, if prisoners are working, they should be compensated for that labor with either money or “good time” to shorten their sentences. The bill remains with the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs.

Updates on some of the bills AACF opposes

COVID-19

Progressed: Rep. Justin Gonzales and Sen. Ben Gilmore’s HB 1488 passed the House on Monday. This bill would exclude COVID-19 from workers compensation claims even if the employer requires an employee to perform work, in which “within the normal course and scope of the employee’s job performance exposure to coronavirus 2019 … is possible, likely, or certain.” It has been assigned to the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.

Democracy and Voting Rights

Now Law: HB 1112, filed by Rep. Mark Lowery, was signed into law by Gov. Hutchinson and is now Act 249. The new law amends the state constitution to effectively end the right to vote for people without certain forms of ID.

Amended: This week HJR 1005, filed by Rep. David Ray and Sen. Bart Hester, was amended to add quite a few co-sponsors. This resolution proposes to amend the Arkansas Constitution. Currently for a ballot measure to pass and become law, a simple majority of voters must vote to approve the measure. HJR 1005 would increase the threshold to at least 60 percent of voters. It remains with the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs.

Food Security

Progressed: HB 1512, filed by Rep. Kendon Underwood and Sen. Bart Hester, passed the House Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor on Thursday. This bill would limit the state’s ability to extend SNAP benefits to families who are having trouble meeting the work requirements.

Racial Equity

Now Law: On Wednesday, Gov. Hutchinson signed SB 24, which was sponsored by Sen. Bob Ballinger and Rep. Aaron Pilkington. Now Act 250, the new law removes the duty to retreat, under certain circumstances, from Arkansas’s self-defense law.

Tax and Budget

Now Law: HB 1361, sponsored by Rep. Les Eaves and Sen. Jonathan Dismang, passed the Senate Revenue and Tax Committee, is now Act 248. The new law allows businesses that received loans through the Paycheck Protection Program to deduct from their taxable income the business expenses they paid with the money, even if the loans were forgiven by the federal government.

Legislation AACF is Monitoring

Health Care

Progressed/Scheduled: This week Sen. Missy Irvin and Rep. Michelle Gray filed SB 410, which passed the Senate Insurance and Commerce Committee on Thursday and is scheduled to be heard by the full Senate on Monday, March 8. The bill proposes to change Arkansas’s Medicaid Expansion health insurance coverage in a variety of ways. Currently, all eligible adults in the program are covered by Qualified Health Plans (private insurance that is funded by Medicaid). The bill proposes that the state cover some beneficiaries in the traditional Medicaid program, while allowing others to be covered by the private, plans. To receive coverage from the private insurance plans, participants would be required to take part in “Health Improvement Initiatives” and “Economic Independent Initiatives.” An Oversight Advisory Panel would be created to monitor the program.

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