With Arkansas lawmakers set to begin the fourth week of the 94th General Assembly's regular session, House committees this week will consider a bill that would prevent transgender people from using the restroom of their choice while at school and a measure that aims to restrict "drag performances" by classifying them as an adult-oriented business.
Monday will be the 22nd day of the regular session.
Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has been working behind the scenes with some lawmakers on two sweeping measures -- an education overhaul package and a criminal justice overhaul package -- with 40 newcomers in the 135-member Legislature.
Senate Democratic leader Greg Leding of Fayetteville said Thursday that it's unfortunate that one of the first bills passed by the Senate "targeted the LGBT community."
"I think the session has started off a little more slowly than usual, but I think a lot of people are holding off to wait and to see what the education omnibus bill looks like and what the criminal justice reform bill looks like," he said. "But I expect things are going to start picking up here pretty soon, at least that's my hope."
State Rep. Lane Jean, R-Magnolia, a co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, said Thursday that "We are hoping for the education plan [this week]."
Asked when details of the education overhaul package will be released, Sanders said Thursday "I think we have laid out quite a few of the priorities and now we are making sure that we get it right and not get it fast.
"We are working very closely with our partners in the Legislature, and I think we will be rolling out a lot more specifics and details over the next week or two," she told reporters.
The House Education Committee on Tuesday will resume its consideration of House Bill 1156 by Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, that would require public schools and open enrollment public charter schools to bar people from using a restroom that does not correspond with the sex listed on their birth certificate. The bill applies to places at schools where people "may be in various stages of undress" around others, which includes restrooms, locker rooms, changing rooms and shower rooms.
The bill also requires schools to provide "a reasonable accommodation," such as a private restroom, for transgender students or others who may not be comfortable with the restroom school officials designate for them. The bill also states students do not have to "share sleeping quarters with a member of the opposite sex" unless the person is a member of the student's family.
The House Education Committee's action on the bill was delayed Thursday because legislative staff had yet to complete a required fiscal impact statement after the bill was amended earlier in the week, said Committee Chairman Brian Evans, R-Cabot.
Bentley said Friday that she plans to amend the four-page bill again Tuesday, and if the fiscal impact statement for that amendment is not ready to allow the committee to vote on the bill Tuesday she will ask the committee to vote on the bill Thursday. The proposed amendment is two pages.
She said Thursday that she filed the bill after speaking with two members of the Conway School Board, which passed a similar policy in October that restricts transgender students from using the restroom of their choice. But parents of transgender youths, transgender adults and activists testified the bill singles out transgender students, many of whom have to deal with being shunned and singled out by others.
Bentley said Friday that she plans to present Senate Bill 43 by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, that would classify "drag performances" as adult-oriented businesses to the House City, County and Local Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
"I am not anti-anything," she said. "I am just pro-protecting our kids."
In a party-line vote, the Senate voted 29-6 on Tuesday to send the bill to the House for further consideration after its supporters and opponents disagreed about whether it targets a particular group of people. Republicans voted for the bill, while Democrats voted against the bill.
Under current law, an adult-oriented business means an adult arcade, an adult bookstore or video store, an adult cabaret, an adult live entertainment establishment, an adult motion picture theater, an adult theater, a massage establishment that offers adult services, an escort agency and a nude model studio.
SB43 would add "a drag performance" to that list.
A "drag performance" as defined by Stubblefield's bill requires at least one performer to exhibit a "gender identity that is different from the performer's gender assigned at birth," must be held before an audience of at least two people for entertainment and must appeal to "the prurient interest." The bill would ban an adult-oriented business from being located on public property or where a minor can view what the adult-oriented business is otherwise offering to the public that qualifies it as an adult-oriented business.
Sanders said Wednesday she was supportive of the legislation in its current form.
House Democratic leader Tippi McCullough of Little Rock on Thursday filed House Bill 1268 that would raise the state's minimum teacher pay from $36,000 to $50,000 a year for the 2023-2024 school year and provide a $10,000 raise for full-time teachers.
Leding filed Senate Bill 149 to require the state Department of Education to advise all public school districts to pay a minimum rate for all classified employees of $15 per hour and revise the rate each year thereafter to increase pay based on the growth percentage of the consumer price index. The current minimum wage is $11 an hour.
The $10,000 raises in McCullough's bill will cost $350 million, and a one-time cost of $30 million would be needed to help districts meet the new minimum salary of $50,000, according to the Democrats.
Both bills are backed by 18 House Democrats and six Senate Democrats. The House includes 82 Republicans, and the Senate includes 29 Republicans.
The Senate and House education committees have recommended $4,000 teacher pay raises in their respective educational adequacy recommendations and increasing the annual minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $40,000 a year.
The House committee's proposal calls for the salary increases to begin before the end of the current fiscal 2023, while the Senate committee's proposal recommends waiting until fiscal 2024.
The Senate committee's proposal also calls for merit pay raises under which districts could pay more for teachers who specialize in a needed subject such as physics or incentivize teachers to stay in the classroom rather than move into higher-paying administrative jobs.
The House and Senate committees recommended raising the per-pupil foundation amounts to cover pay increases of $2 per hour for classified staff.
Earlier this month, Sanders said said she wants to combine teacher pay raises with her Arkansas LEARNS plan. She said the LEARNS plan will improve childhood literacy, empower parents, recruit and retain hardworking teachers, prepare students for the workforce, increase access to broadband, and prioritize school safety.
At that time, she said, "I do think that we can do a better job of letting some funding follow the student [with] things like education savings accounts, stuff like that," but that parents of students attending private schools or who are home-schooled wouldn't necessarily get the same amount as the state provides to the public schools for students, and that could be phased in.
Asked about the teacher pay raise that will be included in the education overhaul bill, Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Jane English, R-North Little Rock, said Friday that "I have not a clue."
Evans, who chairs the House Education Committee, said Friday that part of Sanders' education overhaul is boosting teacher salaries to be more competitive with surrounding states.
"I haven't seen specific numbers," he said regarding the teacher pay raise that will be part of the overhaul.
Asked about what the teacher pay raise included in the education omnibus bill will be, Sanders spokeswoman Alexa Henning said Friday night in a written statement that "Governor Sanders has been clear: Arkansas will reward hardworking teachers with higher pay when the Legislature passes her bold education reform package, and she signs Arkansas LEARNS into law."
Henning declined to say how many pages are in the current draft of the bill and whether the draft has been turned over to the Bureau of Legislative Research.
"The Governor expects to unveil the legislation in the coming weeks," she said.
In November, then-Gov. Asa Hutchinson proposed a $314 million increase in the state's general revenue budget to $6.33 billion for fiscal year 2024, which begins July 1, 2023, and ends June 30, 2024. The former governor earmarked $200 million of the proposed increase for the public schools to help boost teacher salaries. That would leave a projected general revenue surplus of $254.9 million in fiscal 2024, he said.
At that time, the finance department's current deputy director of budget Robert Brech said the governor's proposed general revenue budget would provide flexibility to at least raise the minimum teacher pay from $36,000 to $40,000 a year, and there is leeway in the proposal to increase that salary threshold.
The proposed budget would provide all teachers with a $4,000 raise, he said.
BUDGET AND TAX CUTS
"We got a lot of appropriations and DHS [Department of Human Services] and education and corrections that are kind of in limbo," Jean said. Eventually, "the logjam will break and when it does it will be fast and furious," he said.
"I really think DHS and education and prisons are still being worked on by the second floor [the governor's office] and they are trying to formulate a plan within themselves."
"They really need to be working on their RSA [Revenue Stabilization Act]," he said.
The Revenue Stabilization Act prioritizes the distribution of state general revenue to supported programs such as public schools, human services programs, colleges and universities, correctional programs and other programs such as the Arkansas State Police.
As for tax cuts, Jean said, "we are going to have to find out all this other stuff before we talk about taxes."
Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, who is the other co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, said there have been legislative discussions about the general concept of a multiyear tax cut plan, probably for the next four years, and some discussions about "doing something retroactive.
"As far as a bill in place, we are a ways off from ... being able to consider that because we don't know what the other budget pieces look like at this point," he said.
Feb. 8 is the deadline for lawmakers to file proposed constitutional amendments.
So far, one proposed constitutional amendment has been filed by state Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, and one proposed constitutional amendment has been filed by state Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest.
House Joint Resolution 1001, filed by Ray, would abolish the Independent Citizens Commission that has set the salaries of state-elected officials under Amendment 94 to the Arkansas Constitution approved by voters in November 2014 and return that responsibility to the Legislature.
Senate Joint Resolution 1, by King, would require the governor, attorney general and secretary of state that make up the state Board of Apportionment to appoint three members apiece to the Arkansas Apportionment Commission to redraw legislative district boundaries after each federal decennial census, and approve or reject the reports issued by the commission.
House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Dwight Tosh, R-Jonesboro, said Thursday that "I haven't had anybody come to me as chair of that committee and approach me about any kind of [constitutional] amendments.
Two years ago, lawmakers filed 42 proposed constitutional amendments.
"This time here we are two weeks away [from the filing deadline and] I haven't been contacted," Tosh said.
Lawmakers may refer up to three proposed constitutional amendments to voters for the 2024 general election. In Nov. 8 general election, voters rejected all three proposed constitutional amendments referred to voters by the Legislature in the 2021 regular session.
Friday was the deadline for lawmakers to file retirement bills.
Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, has filed Senate Bill 77 that is aimed at no longer requiring justices or judges to forfeit their retirement benefits for serving beyond the age of 70.
Under existing state law, a judge or justice who is not 70 on the date he or she is elected may complete the term without forfeiting his or her rights to retirement benefits, and any judge who is not eligible to retire at 70 may continue to serve as judge until the completion of the term in which he or she receives sufficient credited service to retire without losing his or her retirement benefits.
"I really just don't like the age limit at all because it is basically singling out the judicial branch," Hickey said in an interview.
"The executive don't have it. The legislative don't have it. U.S senators don't have it. So I want to see if the membership is interested in repealing that."
Information for this article was contributed by Will Langhorne and Neal Earley of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and The Associated Press.