LITTLE ROCK — Even though Arkansas’ first General Assembly under Republican control since Reconstruction produced the broadest expansion of government-funded health care in generations, GOP lawmakers managed to put a conservative stamp on the session.
Some constituencies were not pleased.
Child welfare advocates and environmentalists, for instance, praised lawmakers for devising a plan for subsidizing health insurance for thousands of low-income Arkansans but lamented that some of their initiatives either got no more money or were flatly rejected. In some cases, the GOP Legislature changed existing laws in a way that could negatively affect the state in the future, they said.
Rich Huddleston, executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, described it as "one of the most difficult (sessions) for us and quite frankly a lot of other folks as well."
He expressed concern whether the state can handle the more than $140 million in tax cuts by fiscal 2016 approved by the Legislature without having to reduce services. Also, he noted funding will remain stagnant next year for the Arkansas Better Chance early childhood education program as well as the child welfare service program in the Division of Children and Family Services.
"If you look, not only are we not able to serve all the kids that need to be served in those programs but now those programs are basically having to cut corners," Huddleston said. "At some point that’s going to impact quality."
Glen Hooks, associate regional director for the Sierra Club of Arkansas, said the state’s ability to protect it’s water resources and air quality took hits during the session.
"What happened with the Legislature is, there were a lot of folks huffing and puffing about the (Environmental Protection Agency) and about over burdensome regulations and not thinking about the consequences of this and what it is going to happen in the future," said Hooks.
Hooks said the passage during the session of legislation dealing with air and water quality has many environmentalists concerned.
House Bill 1929, now Act 954 of 2013, eases regulatory requirements on municipalities and industries that discharge minerals into Arkansas waterways.
Senate Bill 796, now Act 1302 of 2013, prohibits the state Department of Environmental Quality from conducting its own computerized modeling to determine the air quality impact of a new factory or plant. Under the amendment to the state’s air-pollution regulations, ADEQ must rely solely on air pollution monitoring stations across the state. There are 15 such stations in Arkansas.
Teresa Marks, director of the ADEQ, spoke against both bills during legislative committee meetings, saying they would put the state’s air and water quality regulations at odds with federal law.
Hooks said HB 1929 reduced the environmental quality standards for waterways that do not flow into bodies of water that are used by cities for drinking.
"Right now, Arkansas is kind of known for having the best water quality in the country and one of the reasons is because all our waterways are considered either drinking water or potential drinking water, therefore they are protected from pollution," he said. "This bill removes that presumption, so a lot of waterways, under this legislation, I think are going to be threatened by industry and pollution."
Hooks said SB 796 as "almost humorous."
"It says DEQ can’t do this dispersing modeling unless the permit applicant volunteers to let it happen. Nobody is going to let them do that," he said. "So, you’re taking the tools out of the hands of DEQ when (that department) is trying to make sure that all these counties stay within compliance of certain types of pollutants."
Lawmakers in committee meetings defended the measures, saying they are not anti-environment but designed to reduce overburdening regulations on municipalities and businesses in the state.
Hooks said environmentalists were able to get two bills passed which would enable homeowners and business owners to invest in energy-saving devices and equipment for their homes and buildings.
"Strategically, you had to work a little bit differently" with the Republican majority, Hooks said. "You came in with a little bit taller of a hill to climb if you were trying to pass environmental legislation. It was not impossible, but you had to stress things more economically minded rather than environmentally minded."
Huddleston congratulated lawmakers for their bipartisanship in getting the health care expansion approved, as well as for full funding of public education, but he said "we have not fully funded the state’s needs for children and families, and this just builds on a pattern that we’ve had in place now for the last four or five years because of the recession and the state has had to do with less."
Working with 15 freshmen senators and 40 new House members also made things little difficult, Huddleston said.
"We came into the session, quite frankly, not knowing who most of the legislators were," he said. "So, we really had to start developing relationships … from the ground up. For an organization that doesn’t have a full time lobbyist all year long and who does not lobby the rest of the year, that was a major challenge for us."
Tom Larimer, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, said the state’s Freedom of Information Act took a hit during the session when the Legislature voted to exempt concealed weapons permit holders.
"That was the one thing that dealt the heaviest blow to the people’s right to know in the Freedom of Information Act," he said. "We saw that as a very unnecessary undermining of the FOI. Unfortunately it was very emotional, lot of these types of issues are, and it went through without much difficulty."
The Legislature also voted to exempt from the state FOI the names of juveniles involved in traffic accidents. The APA also opposed the legislation.
"Sixteen-year-olds are juveniles and they can drive legally, so if they are involved in an accident where somebody is killed, yeah, (the police) can’t release their names," Larimer said. "Unfortunately, our argument fell on deaf ears and it went through anyway."
Larimer noted that on a number of other occasions, exemptions to the FOI were written into bills and when asked about them, lawmakers agreed to amend the legislation to remove the FOI exemption.
"There weren’t a lot of them that really created heart burn for us and in general when we asked they took them out," he said.
Alan Hughes, president of the AFL-CIO in Arkansas, said he was pleased with the health care expansion but disappointed that lawmakers rejected legislation to raise the state minimum wage. He also expressed concern about the state’s unemployment trust fund and wished something could have been done to address that issue.
"The fund is still not sure, we feel," he said.
The state owes the federal government for money it borrowed to keep unemployment benefits flowing to thousands of out-of-work Arkansans during the recession. The current balance is about $218 million, down from $360.
The Legislature, in an effort to generate revenue to repay the federal government, approved Act 861 of 2011 which reduced unemployment benefits and changed eligibility requirements for people seeking unemployment. In 2009, the unemployment insurance rate employers pay was raised by 20 percent.
Two measures designed to further reduce unemployment benefits, however, were rejected this session.
Jerry Cox, president of the Christian conservative Family Council, hailed the session as one of the best sessions his organization has ever had.
The conservative values of Arkansas voters were reflected in the Republican majority elected last November, he said.
"Elections matter," he said. "The people determine what kind of Legislature we have, and they decided to send people to this building who share the views of the majority of the people of Arkansas."
Cox said more half of the bills pushed by Family Council were passed and signed into law, including a bill to opt out of the abortion mandates in the federal Affordable Care Act, two bills limiting abortions, a bill declaring that life begins at conception for purposes of criminal and civil liability, a measure to allow a woman to use deadly force to protect her unborn child, and the Tim Tebow law, which allows home-school students to participate in public high school sports.
Rita Sklar, executive director of the Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, had a different view.
"It’s a question of how the session went for civil liberties," she said. "That wasn’t very good. In fact it was not only bad but disturbing."
Earlier this month, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit challenging a new state law that bans most abortions at 12 weeks.
Act 301 requires a woman seeking an abortion at 12 weeks or later into a pregnancy to receive an abdominal ultrasound to check for a fetal heartbeat. If a heartbeat is detected, the law prohibits an abortion from being performed except in cases of rape, incest, medical emergencies or fetal anomalies that would not allow the child to live after birth.
A physician who violates the law would lose his medical license.
"You had the intensity of the war on women and the attempt to set us back in time in terms of admitting women have the right to make their own personal, private decisions about reproductive health issues," Sklar said about the recent legislative session.