Here's a rundown on some of the new laws enacted during the 100 days of the 89th General Assembly, which informally adjourned April 23. Formal adjournment is May 17.
Act 301 (Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway) outlaws abortions after 12 weeks gestation, and Act 171 (Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley; Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs), outlaws abortions after 20 weeks. Also: Act 72 (Rep. Butch Wilkins, D-Bono), prohibits insurance coverage of abortions; Act 156 (Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch), defines personhood as beginning at conception and allows a woman to use deadly force to protect her fetus; Act 1032 (Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette), defines personhood as beginning at conception for purposes of legal action; Act 725 (Hester), requires parental consent for abortions performed on girls under 18 and that forensic samples be taken from aborted fetuses from girls under 18.
EFFECT: Legislators, overriding vetoes by Gov. Mike Beebe, decided to require Arkansas women to bear children, whether they want to or not, if they are 12 weeks or more pregnant, when an ultrasound can detect the fetal heartbeat. There is no exception for fetuses so malformed that they are destined to die in utero or at birth. There are exceptions to save the life of the mother or prevent irreversible damage to her organs or if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
Act 301 requires that a woman seeking abortion submit to an ultrasound to detect the fetal heartbeat. (In its first iteration, sponsor Rapert wanted to require that ultrasound to be vaginal; he amended the bill after doctored images of him playing the fiddle with a vaginal ultrasound were created for the Internet.) The woman's doctor will be required to inform her of the results of the ultrasound in writing and provide information on the "statistical probability of bringing the unborn human individual to term." She will then have to sign a form acknowledging she's been told the heartbeat could be heard, and continue the pregnancy. Act 171 bans abortions after 20 weeks, declaring that that is the point at which the fetus feels pain. Whether it causes emotional pain to require the woman to carry to term — or as long as it can last — a fetus she knows will not survive was disregarded.
FUTURE: Two doctors have filed suit in federal court naming the state Medical Board as defendant challenging the constitutionality of Act 301. A separate suit challenging Act 171 is expected.
Act 1227 (Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home) removes race as a factor in student transfers between districts.
EFFECT: A federal judge last year ruled unconstitutional the state's practice of allowing school districts to consider race as a criterion for allowing transfers between districts. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case in January, and now has asked lawyers in the case to submit briefs arguing whether or not it should rule in the wake of Act 1227. But in perhaps solving one question the new law has created a whole new batch. Act 1227 removes race as a factor in student transfers between school districts, but it also lets school districts opt out of school choice, without any state review, if they have been mandated to remedy the effects of racial segregation in the past. The past is not defined. Many districts in the state could opt out under that criterion — Blytheville, Camden-Fairview, El Dorado and Hope already have. Some have even argued that the entire state has a history of segregation, which might allow even districts without a history of their own to opt out. Among those that don't opt out, don't expect the racial makeup of districts to change overnight (read: white flight). The new law caps the number of transfers allowed from a district to no more than 3 percent of the district's student population per year.
FUTURE: Lawsuits are a near certainty.
Act 509 (Rep. Mark Biviano, R-Searcy) gives the state Department of Education oversight of public charter schools.
EFFECT: Republicans and so-called "education reformers" came into the session eyeing a complete overhaul of public education in Arkansas — opening the floodgates to charter schools, introducing school vouchers and expanding school choice. Prevailing only on an incremental expansion of the school choice law probably represents a loss for the "reformers," but they remain in good position for the war. (When the "reform" is funded by money from the Waltons and other billionaires, you're always in a good position).
"Reformers" couldn't muster enough support for another bill sponsored by Biviano that would've given charter school approval and supervision to a newly created independent commission. The fallback, Act 509, takes away discretionary power over charters from the state Board of Education and gives it to the state Education Department. The initial proposal to create a new commission would've ensured a rapid expansion of charters; the fallback won't help the "reform" movement until a governor sympathetic to charter schools remakes the Education Department accordingly.
FUTURE: Elections matter.
Act 595 (Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest) requires voters to present photo identification at polls.
EFFECT: You've got to show a photo ID — issued by the federal or state government or an Arkansas college or university — when voting. Previously, poll workers were required to ask you for your ID, but you were not required to provide it. Republicans say the new law will protect the integrity of our elections; some may believe that. But there's no evidence of substantial in-person voter fraud, the only kind prevented by the new law. There is plenty of evidence, however, that this law is a cynical ploy to suppress the votes of the poor, elderly and minorities, who tend to vote for Democrats and lack photo IDs disproportionately to other demographics. Dan Greenberg, a former Arkansas legislator who was the chief "expert" during voter ID testimony, helped craft the bill at a meeting of the Koch-financed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in 2009, not coincidentally a little less than a year after President Obama inspired a historic voter turnout.
In case his bid to tilt elections in Republicans' favor fails, King pushed through a trio of bills that would put more power over election oversight in the office of the secretary of state, now held by Republican Mark Martin. Gov. Beebe vetoed all three, calling them "unwarranted attempts to undo a carefully crafted system of checks and balances and divisions of responsibility between the state Board of Election Commissioners, the secretary of state's office and local election commissioners." House Speaker Davy Carter has said it's unlikely he'll call back the full House to try to override the vetoes on May 17, when the General Assembly formally adjourns.
FUTURE: The ACLU of Arkansas is likely to file suit against Act 595. Amendment 51 of the Arkansas Constitution, which outlawed the poll tax and established a system of permanent voter registration, prevents the legislature or a local government from adding new requirements for voting beyond the procedures outlined in the amendment.
Act 954 (Rep. Andy Davis, R-Little Rock) declares water quality measures required by the federal Clean Water Act to be speculative and sets a different standard for release of minerals by industry and cities into Arkansas waterways.
EFFECT: Your future drinking water may taste bad and be bad for you. It took a legislative committee less than 15 minutes to give a "do pass" to this bill, which lowers pollution standards for Arkansas's waterways. Ignoring warnings from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and the federal Environmental Protection Agency that the bill violated federal law, the industry-sponsored bill upends current regulations that protect all waterways from pollutants — which is why our drinking water is so good — to exempt only those waterways now in use as a source of drinking water from relaxed pollution rules.
FUTURE: A challenge to the law as violating federal law is expected.
Act 1302 (Sen. Ron Caldwell, R-Wynne) amends laws and regulations of air quality standards.
EFFECT: More air pollution. The industry-sponsored bill removes ADEQ's ability to require industrial permit seekers to model their pollution dispersant systems to show what the impact on surrounding areas would be. The ADEQ and EPA opposed this bill as well, on the grounds that it runs afoul of federal clean air laws.
FUTURE: A challenge to the law as violating federal law is possible.
Act 67 (Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest) lets houses of worship decide whether they will allow churchgoers to carry concealed handguns; Act 226 (Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville) lets colleges and universities decide whether concealed weapons will be allowed on campus; Act 1390 (Sen. King) lets churches operating K-12 schools decide whether to allow concealed weapons on school property; Act 760 (Sen. King) allows licensed employees to carry a concealed weapon in liquor stores; Act 1089 (Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway) automatically accepts concealed-handgun licenses from other states in Arkansas; Act 145 (Sen. Bruce Holland, R-Greenwood) exempts the names and zip codes of gun owners from the state Freedom of Information Act; Act 415 (Rep. Justin Harris, R-West Fork) exempts former law-enforcement officers from licensing requirements for concealed carry; Act 746 (Rep. Denny Altes, R-Fort Smith) defines a "journey" as a trip leaving the county (carrying a weapon on a journey is permitted by law).
EFFECT: Restrictions on guns were loosened in a variety of ways. Most churches and higher-education institutions will probably maintain a no-guns policy, but it will at least be legally possible for the lock-and-load set to seek out firearm-friendly places for prayer and learning. Ditto for church-run private schools. Liquor-store employees will be able to carry concealed weapons, and it will be easier for former law-enforcement agents and licensed gun owners moving in from other states to get a concealed-carry license. Who are all these folks carrying concealed weapons? The public will no longer have access to that information. The one possible doozy was the most obscure: Rep. Altes' act that quietly re-defined "journey," at least according to some gun advocates, that carrying a weapon — concealed or open, with or without a license — is allowable so long as a person is journeying from one county to another. It's implausible that this was the legislature's intent (a bill allowing open carry failed), but the question will be left to the courts unless the legislature tries to take action to amend or repeal it in May. The same "journey" exemption would apply to knives, throwing stars, etc., pleasing the traveling ninja lobby.
FUTURE: Act 746 is likely to lead to a court case as soon as someone defies a gun law but announces, "Hey, I'm on my way to Stuttgart!"
Acts 1496, 1497, 1498 (Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe; Sen. Paul Bookout, D-Jonesboro; Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock; Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View; Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison; Rep. Davy Carter, R-Cabot; Rep. Mark Biviano, R-Searcy) use Medicaid dollars from the federal healthcare law to offer subsidized private health insurance on the exchange to low-income people; Act 1499 (Sanders) creates the office of Medicaid Inspector General; Act 1500 (Biviano) creates a nonprofit healthcare exchange marketplace; Act 1339 (Burris) allows the Insurance Commissioner to consider a nonprofit insurer's surplus funds in determining whether a proposed rate is excessive.
EFFECT: The state's decision to accept federal money for expansion of healthcare coverage means that more than 200,000 low-income Arkansans will gain health insurance. Via the so-called "private option" plan, the government will pick up the entire cost of the premium for private health insurance on the exchange for people whose earnings fall below 138 percent of the federal poverty level. Meanwhile, the exchange — a regulated marketplace that is currently a federal-state partnership — will be able to transition to a state-run entity in 2015, at the discretion of a non-profit board, including legislators and state officials, that will manage it. The existing Medicaid program will add a new position in charge of program integrity, the Inspector General, appointed by the governor and operating independently of DHS. Fraud in the Medicaid program on the beneficiary side is negligible, but could be a significant problem on the provider side. According to Sanders, this will be the inspector general's focus; if so, the position could be a useful piece of a larger reform effort to reduce costs.
Other minor reforms to the Medicaid program include a new system for income verification; a new system to target Medicaid providers that have not paid state income tax; background checks and drug testing for Medicaid in-home caregivers; and the creation of a new pilot program as well as a legislative review committee for the state's payment reform initiative.
Act 1339 will provide some protection to consumers in the private market. The bill in practice largely targets Blue Cross Blue Shield, making it more difficult for the insurance carrier to accumulate excess income while hiking premiums.
FUTURE: Arkansas will seek federal approval of the waiver necessary to enact the "private option" — the feds are highly likely to grant the waiver. In June, carriers will submit bids to sell insurance on the exchange, and the exchange will be up and running on Jan. 1, 2014, with the transition to a state-run exchange a possibility a year later.
Act 1488 (Rep. Davy Carter, R-Cabot) increases the exemption on state income taxes paid on capital gains. Act 1459 (Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville) reduces state income tax.
EFFECT: The legislature passed a slew of tax cuts that'll eventually cost the state as much as $140 million in revenue, but unless you're active-duty military, a blood donation organization, a dentist, a farmer, a large manufacturer, a timber harvester or a volunteer firefighter — all of whom received tax breaks or exemptions — you won't feel much relief.
Cuts to income and capital gains tax got the most publicity during the session, but unless you've got seriously deep pockets, you won't notice them either. Act 1459, sponsored by Rep. Charlie Collins, reduces all tax brackets one tenth of one percent. The cut on the lowest bracket goes into effect in 2014; all others start in 2015. Act 1488, championed by House Speaker Davy Carter, exempts capital gains in excess of $10 million beginning in 2014, not coincidentally the year he's likely to be running for higher office, in need of some funding by those buying and selling things worth more than $10 million. In 2015, the act ups the percentage of capital gains exempt from income tax from 30 percent to 50 percent. Regular folks, most of whom take the standard deduction, get a crumb in the legislation, too: In 2015, taxpayers can claim $2,200 for their standard deduction, $200 more than is currently allowed.
Many Republicans were eager to pass healthcare expansion in Arkansas because it's projected to save the state money, whereas doing nothing would've required the legislature to shore up the ballooning cost of the state Medicaid program. Without the savings, there couldn't have been similar-sized tax cuts. Otherwise, despite Carter's claims to the contrary, healthcare expansion and tax cuts have nothing to do with each other. One helps the working poor, the other disproportionally benefits the ultra-rich, who already paid the lowest effective tax rate in the state. Moreover, to pay for the tax cuts, the legislature didn't fund promising educational programs and kept the budget for National School Lunch Act funding, which goes to school districts with the highest level of poverty, flat, while giving all the other categorical funding a cost of living increase.