Quote of the Week:
"It's just amazing to me that every time we talk about something that will hurt the little guy, we call it reform."
— State Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock), speaking against a proposed constitutional amendment to institute "tort reform" by capping the damages that a jury may award to an injured party in a lawsuit and severely limiting attorney contingency fees. The Senate approved Senate Joint Resolution 8, sponsored by Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View), 21-10. The measure now must win passage from the House in order to appear on the 2018 ballot. Chesterfield also criticized the fact that SJR 8 would transfer judicial rulemaking power from the Arkansas Supreme Court to the legislature, noting the "creeping infringement on the other two branches of government" by the legislative branch.
'Bathroom bill' filed
As expected, some state legislators are targeting transgender Arkansans over the contentious issue of public restrooms. Last week, Republican Sens. Greg Standridge of Russellville and Gary Stubblefield of Branch filed Senate Bill 346, a shell bill that states "the purpose of this act concerns gender identity and bathroom privileges." (A shell bill is placeholder legislation to be fleshed out with an amendment at a later date.) Whatever details are eventually to come, it's a certainty that Stubblefield and Standridge aren't looking to make life any easier for trans folks. "My view is, if you're born a male and your DNA is of male gender, then that's the bathroom you should use," Stubblefield told the Arkansas News Bureau when asked about SB 346. The bill calls to mind North Carolina, whose legislature broke new ground in transphobia and needless cruelty a year ago by passing a law to require transgender people to use public restrooms corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate. The state has reaped bitter political conflict and economic blowback ever since, which may be one reason that some Arkansas Republicans are wary of a "bathroom bill": Governor Hutchinson said in a statement last week that the bill was "unnecessary" and "potentially harmful."
A polluter's dream
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt was approved to head the federal Environmental Protection Agency, a move that green advocates like Arkansas Sierra Club Director Glen Hooks called "a complete environmental and public health disaster." Unsurprisingly, Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge — who has called Pruitt a friend and mentor — cheered his confirmation by the U.S. Senate. As Oklahoma AG, Pruitt, like Rutledge, sued the EPA multiple times to block clean air and clean water rules. Now he'll run the agency. It's about as perverse as, say, placing Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions over federal civil rights enforcement.
The Arkansas Senate narrowly rejected two separate attempts by Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway) to call for an "Article V" convention to amend the U.S. Constitution, one to ban same-sex marriage and one to ban abortion. Both fell one vote short of approval, with a number of Rapert's fellow Republicans not voting. The senator insisted the fight against gay marriage isn't over: "History is on my side," he declared from the floor during debate.
Unemployed workers on the chopping block
The Arkansas House voted 62-26 to slash unemployment benefits, reducing both the number of weeks that laid-off workers qualify for unemployment and the size of their weekly benefits. The purpose of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Robin Lundstrum (R-Elm Springs), was simply to increase employers' profits. There was no immediate need for the benefit cuts, because the fund now contains over $500 million, but Lundstrum insisted "our employers have been overpaying now for years on their unemployment taxes." The bill now heads to the Senate.
War Memorial conquered
The House gave final approval to a bill that would end the independent War Memorial Stadium Commission and put the facility under control of the state Department of Parks and Tourism. The immediate impact will be a cut in general revenue funding for the stadium by 50 percent, to $447,000 annually. Combined with a loss of Razorback football income — the Hogs only have two scheduled games remaining at War Memorial, one this year and one in 2018 — the state must now come up with new ways to increase revenue for the stadium to keep it afloat.