2015 Legislative Session Summary

Larry Page/Arkansas Faith & Ethics Council

The following is a summary of our work at the recently adjourned regular session of the Arkansas General Assembly. Limited space for this report doesn’t allow us to comment on every issue we dealt with, but we have been able to include some of the more important ones. Before going further, I want to acknowledge God’s blessings on our efforts; we felt His wise leading in so many areas. Next, I want to express how very grateful we are for those who have and continue to stand by us with prayerful and financial support. Lastly, I should recognize that we worked alongside some very fine groups, including Families First Foundation, Arkansas Right to Life, Family Council, and Arkansas Family Association.

Several bills that we were monitoring and working on lapsed with the close of the session. They cannot be carried over to the next session; they will have to be refiled, if they are to be considered in the 2017 legislative session. If you recall a bill or bills I mentioned in previous updates, but see no mention of them here, you may assume that the bill expired with the session’s adjournment.

Three bills, HB1228, SB229, and SB975, were filed to establish a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”) for Arkansas. SB975, which closely tracked the federal RFRA, was the preference of the Governor and legislature. There was much confusion about just what SB975 entails. Arkansas’ RFRA is not unlike the 21 RFRAs already in place in other states and the federal RFRA. In essence, RFRA protects religious liberty in the following way. If the government orders someone to act in a way that violates that person’s deeply held religious belief, the individual can try to invoke RFRA as a defense. In order to succeed, the person must demonstrate that the action ordered by the government substantially burdens his religious beliefs and exercise. The burden then shifts to the government, which must show that there is a compelling governmental interest in the action being completed and that there is no less restrictive means of accomplishing that action.
SB202, the Intrastate Commerce Act, prohibits cities and counties from by ordinance designating particular groups for protection in local civil rights ordinances that are not named as protected groups in the state’s civil rights laws. It provides much needed uniformity in such laws.
We opposed HB1950 which would have added homosexuals and transgendered persons as protected classes in the state’s civil rights laws. SB202 never gained any traction and expired with the close of the session.

SB215 and HB1834, two of the worst proposals offered, were bills that would have taken the vote away from residents in wet counties to determine whether on-premises consumption of alcoholic beverages would be permitted in their cities. We opposed both measures, defeating HB1834 outright. SB215 was amended so significantly that we got about 99% of what we wanted.
We supported HB1390 that passed into law. It establishes that a liquor store must be 1000 feet or greater from a church, measured from property line to property line.
HB1790 is a good law we supported. It takes the various laws regarding local option elections and codifies them in a concise and understandable manner; something sorely needed for some time.
We opposed HB1718 which expired for lack of progress. It would have allowed qualifying cities to establish “entertainment districts,” which traditionally allow the consumption of alcohol outdoors and in public.
We supported SB64 and SB81. They were intended to strengthen our state’s DWI laws. SB64 would have increased criminal sanctions for DWI accidents involving injuries and/or driving on a suspended license. It died with the adjournment of the session. SB81 passed and is now state law. It added operating a boat while under the influence of alcohol to the state’s DWI laws – something that was long overdue.
Unfortunately, SB785 didn’t get to become law. It would have mandated facilities that served alcohol to post signs warning about complications that can result from drinking while pregnant.

Two identical bills, SB53 and HB1076, we supported have both become law. They prohibit so-called “webcam abortions.” This process enables doctors to remotely interview women by use of internet connections and prescribe RU-486 or other abortion-inducing drugs. The doctors don’t actually examine the patients. Nor are they present when the drugs are administered or in cases where complications occur. These new laws require any doctor prescribing RU-486 or any other abortifacient to be physically present with the patient, to examine the patient, to attend when the drugs are administered, and to be available for follow-up days after the drugs are administered.
HB1394, another bill we supported that has become law, mandates that when chemical abortions are performed using RU-486 or any other abortifacient, all the protocols established by the Food and Drug Administration must be strictly met.
SB569 is a good, straightforward new law that prohibits taxpayer money from going to help fund Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion provider in the United States. It is a welcomed addition to our state’s laws.
HB1424 is a new law which will strengthen our parental notification and consent required prior to an abortion being performed on a minor. It’s a good, common-sense measure.
HB1218, as originally filed would add church employees (not volunteers) as mandatory reporters of child maltreatment. However, it would not have included employees of other nonprofit, charitable organizations to be mandatory reporters. After discussions with the bill’s sponsor and attorneys with DHS’s Division of Children and Family Services, the bill was amended to add employees of all nonprofit, charitable organizations, not just churches and that is the form in which the bill was passed.

SB7, now Act 218, abolishes the Arkansas Lottery Commission and gives the responsibility for the administration of the state lottery to the Department of Finance and Administration (“DF&A”). There is no doubt that DF&A will operate the lottery better. Until the time comes when we can get rid of the lottery altogether – and many of us long for that day – this may be the best we can do for the time being.
SB745, the so-called Chuck E. Cheese bill, is one we dealt with extensively. As originally filed, SB745 could have eventually allowed mini-casinos all across the state. In time, hundreds of convenience stores, restaurants/bars, gas stations, and other various retail businesses would have become little casinos. After extensive lobbying from us and thousands of emails to legislators from folks like you in our grass roots network, the sponsor agreed to dramatically amend the law. Now it only permits one establishment in Pulaski County and, at our insistence, language was added that explicitly prohibits gambling machines, devices, and games.
HB1675 was intended to amend the law on raffles to allow the purchases of raffle tickets to be made electronically. Under current law, raffle tickets have to purchased and paid for in person. HB1675 would allow payment for raffle tickets over the phone or internet. When it was pointed out to the sponsor that scam operations would spring up due to no restrictions in the bill, he agreed to pull the bill and bring it back next session when adequate safeguards and restrictions were added.

Again, I want to thank all of you in our grass roots network who have enabled us to carry on important work like that described above. The importance of your prayers, your financial support, and your willingness to get involved and be part of the process cannot be adequately described by me. When I say thank you, I mean that as sincerely as I can. God bless you mightily.

Let me close this with the way I ended the many legislative updates and alerts I sent out this year:

Thanks for your participation in good government. It works best, when we get involved, have our voices heard, and our preferences known.