Senate advances bill that aims to end affirmative action in state, local governments

Sen. Dan Sullivan looks over his papers Thursday before presenting the Senate his bill aimed at ending affirmative action in the state. “If we are ever going to stop all discrimination in this state, it will not be by further discrimination,” Sullivan said. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

A bill aimed at ending affirmative action in Arkansas' state and local governments and giving state agencies two years to implement the bill barely cleared the Arkansas Senate on Thursday.

The Senate voted 18-12 to advance Senate Bill 71 by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, to the House for further consideration. Two senators didn't vote on the bill, one senator voted present, and two others were absent.

The bill has been assigned to the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee, according to the General Assembly's website.

SB71 narrowly escaped the Arkansas Senate on the 60th day of the 94th General Assembly's regular session.

Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, said Tuesday during a Senate committee meeting that the state's Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, a museum about Black history in Arkansas, will cease to exist if this bill is enacted into law.

Sullivan told senators on Wednesday that he visited the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock on Wednesday night and "it's a wonderful center, doing a lot of good things." He said Attorney General Tim Griffin told him the bill won't close the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center.

"If we are ever going to stop all discrimination in this state, it will not be by further discrimination," Sullivan said.

Afterward, Griffin said, "I reviewed this legislation, and the idea that this ban on state-sponsored racial preferences will shut down our museums is ridiculous.

"In fact, this bill will bring our state in line with constitutional principles that I expect the U.S. Supreme Court to reiterate soon," the Republican attorney general said in a written statement.

Tucker told senators on Wednesday that the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center's mission is to preserve, interpret and present Black culture and Black history in Arkansas and "every transaction that they engage in has a preference based on race."

"If this bill passes, they won't be able to do that. They may not have to close their doors, but the museum will cease to exist as it does right now if this bill passes," he said.

Sullivan said the bill would set out a two-year cycle for state agencies to promulgate rules for the Legislative Council to implement the bill.

"Folks, we are going to hold the people accountable for this, and we are going to make sure that Arkansas does not discriminate based upon race, color and national origin," he said.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said this bill needs more work.

"The ramifications of this bill are great, especially for ethic minorities, for women and for disabled veterans, because you are saying in essence there cannot be programs that address the specific needs of those individuals," she said. "I think that is unfortunate."

Tucker said he believes the state's Minority Health Commission would be affected by this bill, and he's not sure whether the state's four historically Black colleges will be affected.

The Arkansas Economic Development Commission's Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprise Division attempts to make sure that every kind of entrepreneur has an equal opportunity to start growing business in Arkansas, and would be affected by this bill, he said.

"The platitude on this bill supposedly is that we are trying to end discrimination, but what I think the real message of this bill, if it passes, will be is that as far as we are concerned racism and sexism ... in the United States are over," Tucker said. "We can wash our hands of it. We are good. We've checked that box."

Sullivan has disputed that.

The bill would define the state as the state of Arkansas, a city, county, an institution of higher education, a public school district, public special school district, or a political subdivision or governmental instrumentality of the state.

"The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, an individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in matters of state employment, public education, or state procurement," under a section of the bill, which states that it would only apply to an action taken after the effective date of the measure.

The bill states this section of the bill doesn't prohibit the following matters:

The consideration by the state of bona fide qualifications based on gender that are reasonably necessary to the normal functions of state government, public education or state procurement.

Invalidate a court order or consent decree that is in force at the effective date of this measure.

Prohibit an action necessary to establish or maintain eligibility for a federal program if ineligibility would demonstrably result in a loss of federal funds to the state.

Preempt state discrimination law or federal discrimination law.

Under SB71, a person who negligently violates this section of the bill would be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor.

Among other things, the bill would repeal the state law requiring all state-supported colleges and universities to establish a program for the retention of Black people and other members of minority groups as students, faculty and staff, and the state law requiring each state-supported institution of higher education to prepare an affirmative action program for the recruitment of Black people and other members of minorities for faculty and staff positions and for enrollment as students.

"We will set the standard for what need is," Sullivan said.

The measure also would repeal the state law requiring each state department, agency, board, commission and institution of higher education and every constitutional officer to adopt and pursue a comprehensive equal employment hiring program designed to achieve a goal of increasing the percentage of minority employees within the state department, agency, board, commission or institution of higher education and within the constitutional office to a level that approximates the percentage of minorities in the state's population, and repeal the state law requiring the Department of Education to set goals for increasing the number of teachers and administrators of minority races and ethnicities in the state.

SB71 would require all state agencies to begin developing a plan to implement the bill upon the effective date of the bill.

A Cabinet-level department secretary would be in violation of the bill if the secretary fails to be in full compliance with the bill within 24 months of the sine die adjournment of the 94th General Assembly's regular session.

Nine states currently ban affirmation action.