This week the Governor’s Arkansas LEARNS bill (SB294), which aims to completely overhaul the state’s education system, was about all anyone could focus on or talk about. In fact, the Senate Education Committee devoted an entire five hours to this 144-page behemoth. Even with significant opposition, and amidst calls from Senate Republicans to slow down and fix troublesome parts of the omnibus bill, it passed out of committee and the Senate Chamber not even a full 72 hours after it was filed.
As you read this week’s newsletter, you may notice a difference from previous weeks. For the first week since the 2023 Legislative Session, the number of bills we oppose far outnumber the bills we support (in terms of bills that were filed or progressed over the course of this week, or that are on the schedule for next week). Where have all the good bills gone? Well, most of them are still “there;” some of them have been officially tabled or deferred; some are waiting for fiscal impact statements (How much would the bill cost the state, if passed?); some may just never make it onto their assigned committee’s agenda.
We’ll admit, it can be hard to feel optimistic when the controversial bills outnumber the good ones. Take heart, though! This week a crowd of advocates gathered at the Arkansas Capitol to show opposition to a wide range of bills. AACF was proud to be a co-host of the rally.
Below you will find an overview of bills on AACF’s legislative agenda and that AACF generally either supports or opposes. We are monitoring more bills, listed and frequently updated on our website.
Bills on AACF’s Legislative Agenda
Through conversations with partners, advocates and young Arkansans, and through our own policy research, AACF has identified a series of policies that will improve the well-being of Arkansans. The following bills are in support of our 2023 legislative agenda. More information on AACF’s legislative priorities is here.
Democracy and Voting Rights
Now Law: Rep. Zack Gramlich and Sen. Justin Boyd’s HB1198 is now Act 92, which will remove county holidays from the days early voting will not be available.
Delivered to Governor: Sen. Jim Dotson and Rep. Carlton Wing are the co-sponsors of SB247. This bill would allow people to vote absentee if they are unable to vote on election day because of religious observances. The bill passed the House Committee on Monday and the full House on Tuesday. It has been delivered to the Governor to be signed into law.
New Bill: Sen. Jonathan Dismang filed SB306 on Tuesday. This bill would, pending federal approval, raise Arkansas’s asset limit for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, previously known as “food stamps”) to $12,500, to be adjusted for inflation every other year. It would also prohibit the state from adopting a gross income limit stricter than the federal limit. It is assigned to the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.
New Bill: Sen. Jonathan Dismang filed SB308 on Wednesday. This bill would provide free school meals for any child who qualifies for reduced-price meals. It is assigned to the Senate Education Committee.
Bills AACF Also Supports
The following are bills not formally on AACF’s legislative agenda but that AACF recognizes could have a positive impact on Arkansas’s children and families.
Democracy and Voting Rights
Assigned: Sen. Clarke Tucker’s SB285 would allow a student to have an excused absence if they accompany their parent or guardian to vote. It is assigned to the Senate Education Committee.
Progressed: Rep. Shad Pearce and Sen. Blake Johnson are the co-sponsors of HB1393. This bill would designate the first week of May to be mental health awareness week in Arkansas public schools. It passed the House Education Committee on Thursday. Read an article about this bill here.
Delivered to the Governor: Rep. Ashley Hudson and Sen. Clarke Tucker’s HB1161 will support pregnant and parenting students by allowing for related excused absences and by giving pregnant and parenting students the flexibility to complete missed school work. It passed the full Senate on Monday, went back to the House side to have an amendment adopted, and has been delivered to the Governor to be signed into law. Read an article about this bill here.
Progressed: Rep. Bruce Cozart and Sen. Kim Hammer’s HB1336 aims to create a 3-year pilot study that would start an agricultural education program in public elementary schools. The program would be based on the nationally recognized three-component model of school-based agricultural education. It passed the House Education Committee on Tuesday and the full House on Wednesday. It is now assigned to the Senate Education Committee.
Bills AACF Opposes
The following are bills we believe would be harmful to our state, our state’s children and their families, and our state’s most vulnerable individuals.
Progressed: Rep. Rebecca Burkes and Sen. Clint Penzo’s HB1410 would remove a requirement for employers to obtain a permit to hire a worker younger than 16. It would dispense with the state requirement to document the child’s age, hours worked, and most importantly, parental permission. It passed the House Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor on Tuesday and the full House on Wednesday. It is now assigned to the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee. Listen to/read a piece by KUAR on this bill here. Read this article to learn why child labor laws are important. And read our blog post on this bill here.
Democracy and Voting Rights
Progressed: Sen. Tyler Dees and Rep. Rebecca Burkes are the co-sponsors of SB258. Though no counties currently use ballot drop off boxes, this bill would prevent the future use of ballot drop boxes regardless of future potential need or security measures in place for the drop box. It passed the full Senate. It is assigned to the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs. Read an article on this bill here.
Progressed; Scheduled: Sen. Jim Dotson and Rep. Kendon Underwood are co-sponsors of a pair of matching bills that would drastically increase the number of petition signatures required to put a measure on the ballot for voters’ consideration. SB260 was amended in the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee on Monday and will go to the full Senate next. HB1419 passed the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs on Monday and the full House on Wednesday. It is on the schedule of the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee for 10am Tuesday, February 28. Read an article on SB260 here.
Progressed: Sen. Jim Petty and Rep. Austin McCollum are the co-sponsors of SB272. This bill would allow political interference in elections by allowing the state Legislature’s Joint Performance Review Committee to refer specific counties’ elections to the state Election Commission for review. It would also require random checks of county election operations even if no potential violations were raised. It passed the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
Scheduled: SB81 is co-sponsored by Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Justin Gonzales. This bill would allow certain books to be banned in public libraries and schools and would allow felony criminal charges to be brought against librarians who loan to minors books determined to be “obscene.” The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday and the full Senate on Wednesday. It is on the agenda of the House Judiciary Committee for 10am Tuesday, February 28. Read an article on the bill here.
Progressed: SB294 is co-sponsored by Sen. Breanne Davis and Rep. Keith Brooks. This is Gov. Sanders’ education omnibus bill, Arkansas LEARNS. This bill would overhaul Arkansas’s education system and create an unlimited voucher system funded through state-funded educational freedom accounts. Families would be able to use these funds to pay for private school or homeschool, and over time it would decrease funding for public education. It would raise the minimum teacher salary to $50,000 but does little to address the average teacher salary for existing teachers, and it also repeals the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act. After five hours of testimony, it passed the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday and the full Senate on Thursday. It is now assigned to the House Education Committee. Read an article on this bill here. And another one here. And read our blog post about the bill here.
Scheduled: SB71 is co-sponsored by Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Marcus Richmond. This bill would prohibit state agencies from providing programs targeted toward historically excluded groups, including on the basis of race, gender, color, ethnicity, or national origin in matters of state employment, public education, or state procurement. This could result in the elimination of scholarships to Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native Americans who commit to teaching in the Delta; university retention programs for Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American students, faculty, and staff. It would also prevent programs designed to recruit more diverse staff in state government. It has been sent back to the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee for amendment, and it is on the agenda for 10am on Tuesday, February 28. Read an article on this bill here.
New Bill: Rep. Wayne Long filed HB1486 on Monday. This bill would prohibit public schools, open-enrollment charter schools, and state supported higher education institutions from requiring staff members to use a student’s or coworker’s personal pronouns if the pronoun is not consistent with that individual’s “biological sex.” It is assigned to the House Education Committee.
Family Economic Security
Now Law: Rep. Kendon Underwood and Sen. Ben Gilmore’s bill HB1197 is now Act 106. The new law will burden workers and businesses with more red tape in an attempt to keep people from accessing unemployment benefits.
Progressed: Rep. Rebecca Burkes and Sen. Clint Penzo are the co-sponsors of HB1401. This bill would limit the assistance available to working families with children under 18 living in the home enrolled in the Transitional Employment Assistance or Work Pays programs by reducing the amount of time families with work-eligible adults can receive cash assistance from the current 24 months to just 12 months. It passed the House Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor on Tuesday and the full House on Wednesday. It is now assigned to the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.
Scheduled: Sen. Gary Stubblefield and Rep. Mary Bentley are the co-sponsors of SB199. This bill would set up stringent requirements for physicians who offer gender-affirming care to minors in Arkansas. The effect of the bill would make it nearly impossible for parents to obtain gender-affirming care for their children, as well as unlikely that physicians wishing to provide such care could obtain or retain medical malpractice insurance. It passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday with last week’s amendments, and it passed the full Senate on Tuesday. It is on the schedule of the House Judiciary Committee for 10am on Tuesday, February 28. Read an article about this bill here.
Delivered to the Governor: Rep. Ken Underwood and Sen. Ben Gilmore are the co-sponsors of HB1196. The bill will add red tape to public housing, pending federal approval, by creating a stringent work-reporting requirement without any investment in supportive services. It passed the full Senate on Monday. AACF Senior Policy Analyst Bruno Showers testified against the bill before it passed the House City, County and Local Affairs Committee on Tuesday. The bill then passed the full House on Thursday and has been delivered to the Governor to be signed into law. Read our blog post on this bill. And an article about this bill here.
Progressed: Sen. Joshua Bryant and Rep. Brit McKenzie are the co-sponsors of SB197. This bill would take away the ability of local governments to set housing and rental policies that work best in their communities. It passed the Senate City, County and Local Affairs Committee on Tuesday and the full Senate on Wednesday. It is now assigned to the House City, County and Local Affairs Committee.
Tax and Budget
Now Law: Rep. David Ray and Rep. John Payton’s HB1026 is now Act 96. This new law will undercut the ability of local governments to set tax and budget policies that work in their local communities.
How You Can Help
- Sign up for Action Alerts, if you haven’t already. By subscribing to this list, you will be notified when we need you to take action, like emailing or calling your legislator, on a specific issue or piece of legislation. You will also receive weekly legislative updates during the session. Find out what bills were filed or made progress during the week at the Arkansas Capitol.
- Join our Facebook Group, Arkansas’s Capitol Advocates. This is a group where advocates for children and families are gathering to talk about how to move important issues and legislation forward and share best practices.
- Attend our events. These are a great way to stay current on our advocacy work and that of our statewide partners.
- Donate. The work our staff does during the legislative session is often not paid for by grants, and we do not receive any state or federal funding. We rely on donors like you to help us be effective advocates at the Arkansas Capitol.