The Arkansas State Legislature passed one final bill in the early morning hours of Wednesday, wrapping a final bow on over three months of work at the 93rd General Assembly.
The bill both chambers passed, House Bill (HB) 1957, was only filed on Monday in response to Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s veto of Senate Bill (SB) 298. SB298, sponsored by State Sen. Gary Stubblefield, was known as the “Arkansas Sovereignty Act” and prohibited state and local law enforcement, as well as public officials, from cooperating with federal authorities “in the enforcement of any federal statute, executive order or federal agency directive that conflicts with [Article Two and Five of the] Arkansas Constitution,” per the bill’s language.
The bill also specifically rejected “all acts, laws, orders, rules and regulations of the United States Government, whether past, present or future, that infringe on the people’s right to keep and bear arms.” Despite support from three-quarters of both chambers, the governor vetoed the measure when it came to his desk, writing to the legislature that SB298 would harm the state’s relationship with federal authorities.
“The partnership between state and federal law enforcement officers is essential for the safety of Arkansas citizens,” the governor wrote in his notification of a veto to the State Legislature. “This bill will break that partnership and put the safety of Arkansans at risk.”
The governor further explained his opposition and called to legislators’ attention the hundreds of active cases which would be jeopardized because local law enforcement would be unable to testify in trials which involve illegal firearm possession.
“That testimony would be barred and criminalized by SB298,” the governor wrote. “Additionally, SB298 would allow those violent criminals to sue Arkansas law enforcement officers for assisting their federal law enforcement counterparts. This is unacceptable.”
Despite a successful Senate vote to override the governor’s veto of SB298 (the Arkansas House of Representatives tabled a motion to override the governor’s veto, effectively running out the clock on the bill), lawmakers recognized the potential negative impacts of the bill and offered another solution: HB1957.
Sponsored by State Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, HB1957 attempts to narrow the language of Stubblefield’s SB298 and address the governor’s concerns with how the relationship between state and federal authorities could be impacted with its passage. Per the bill’s language, federal laws, orders and regulations “enacted on or after Jan. 1, 2021, that infringe on the people’s right to keep and bear arms” are invalid in the state, narrowing the scope of SB298 and ensuring that active legal cases aren’t jeopardized by the proposed law’s passage. Further, the bill specifically lists exceptions to HB1957’s language, noting that law enforcement officers and other state authorities are still expected to cooperate with federal authorities on actions that don’t specifically involve hypothetical federal gun bans.
“[HB1957] says that [Arkansas] state and local officials will not cooperate on any collection of a tax [or] confiscation of guns,” Wardlaw said on the House floor.
Through a series of recesses and vote calls, both chambers of the State Legislature passed HB1957 after midnight on Wednesday morning by similar vote margins as SB298. The bill now heads to the governor for his approval.
In a final piece of news from Tuesday’s marathon session, SB485 died out after over a month of debate in both chambers. If passed, SB485 would have eliminated the Monday before an election as an early voting day, ending early voting in Arkansas on the Saturday before Election Day. Supporters of the bill said it gave poll workers in the state, many of them older, a break ahead of the final push on Election Day and ensured mistakes were not made due to exhaustion from poll workers. Critics, however, labeled the bill as a way to suppress voters.
Quite divisive, SB485 passed the Senate 19-13 on April 22 and failed the House 39-43 on Tuesday. A motion in the House to ensure the bill, which had failed the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday morning, but passed in another meeting on Tuesday afternoon, was not brought forward again failed by a significant majority following the bill’s failure to pass on Tuesday.
Despite the legislature’s recess early Wednesday morning, the 93rd General Assembly has not adjourned. Lawmakers will return to the State Capitol to take up redistricting duties as required by the release of the 2020 U.S. Census Data, likely sometime in the early fall.