Quote of the week:
"Everybody dresses in a costume. I didn't know there was no such a thing as blackface. If I step down, I'm just getting what these people want. I mean, I'm standing up for my rights as a United States citizen."
— Blevins School Board member Ted Bonner, explaining to reporters why he wore blackface for Halloween and sported a sign reading "Blak Lives Matters." A picture of Bonner went viral on social media, prompting calls for his resignation. The Blevins School District (Hempstead County) includes about 480 students, around 80 of them black.
Court denies birth rights
In a split decision, the Arkansas Supreme Court threw out a ruling by a circuit judge who said the state Department of Health had violated the U.S. Constitution by refusing to list both parents' names on the birth certificates of children of same-sex couples. The children of the three plaintiffs in the case were conceived via sperm donation. Writing for the majority, Justice Jo Hart said the statute at issue "centers on the relationship of the biological mother and the biological father to the child, not on the marital relationship of husband and wife." In a dissent, Justice Paul Danielson argued that listing a parent's name on a birth certificate is "a benefit associated with marriage" and noted that "the United States Supreme Court held in Obergefell that states are not free to deny same-sex couples 'the constellation of benefits that the States have linked to marriage.' Importantly, the Court listed 'birth and death certificates' specifically as one of those benefits attached to marital status."
Bills, bills, bills
State legislators continued to pre-file bills in advance of the 2017 session. Among the most controversial in the last week:
Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville) proposed legislation to force people on the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to use their benefits only to buy food with "sufficient nutritional value," as determined by the state Department of Human Services. Bentley's proposal would require a waiver from the federal government and could create a massive access problem in rural and low-income areas in Arkansas, where some beneficiaries might find themselves unable to use food stamps because of a lack of retailers offering eligible items.
Rep. Brandt Smith (R-Jonesboro) filed a bill that would strip state funding from public colleges and universities that adopt "sanctuary" policies that demonstrate tolerance toward the presence of undocumented immigrants. The attorney general would be responsible for enforcement.
Rep. Karilyn Brown (R-Sherwood) proposed requiring all schoolchildren be vaccinated against highly contagious diseases like measles, removing the state's current exemption for religious or philosophical objections. Arkansas has one of the lowest rates of child vaccination in the country.
Only honor King, city says
The city of Little Rock passed a resolution to ask legislators to repeal the state's dual celebration of Martin Luther King and Robert E. Lee in January, and instead let the King holiday stand on its own.
In 2015, bills to remove the Lee celebration (including amended versions to split the celebrations into two different days) failed in committee, with a loud group of neo-Confederates in attendance. The resolution from the Little Rock Board of Directors, which passed 8-1, requests that the Little Rock legislative delegation try again during this year's session. Governor Hutchinson has also requested that the legislature make MLK Day a stand-alone holiday.
City Director Joan Adcock was the lone voice against the resolution and made a special request that any letter sent to the legislature not include her name. Her excuse, according to a story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: "I feel like we have enough problems in the city without trying to tell the state what to do. I don't feel like we need to tell them what to do. ... I feel like we need to solve the problems of Little Rock."
Jett-ing to the GOP
Rep. Joe Jett of Success announced that he was switching to the Republican Party. Jett is the third member of the Arkansas House of Representatives to do so after being elected as a Democrat in November, leaving the Dems with just 24 members in the House.
The move undoes the maneuvering that gave Democrats an unexpected majority on the Revenue and Taxation committee. That committee, which Jett chaired the last two years, is now split 10-10.