The 87th regular session of the Arkansas General Assembly, which was adjourned May 1, 2009, was not unlike previous ones. We experienced some victories, some losses, and some surprises. In this recap, I will not list each measure we followed, but I will include the more important ones.
First, however, I want to thank everyone who supported us with their prayers, resources, and involvement. We appreciate you. And, we are grateful for God’s blessings on our work.
Issues Involving Alcohol and Other Drugs
Perhaps the greatest success in this category did not even involve a filed bill. In past sessions, we have confronted and defeated measures to lower the percentage of signatures of a county’s registered voters from the current level of 38% to 10% or 15% to call a local option election to convert dry counties to wet ones. We were delighted that a bill to accomplish that was not even filed this session. We believe that our consistent track record of defeating those proposals in past sessions was largely responsible for the no-show of this issue this session.
House Bill 1570 quickly drew our opposition. That measure would have explicitly included the category of restaurants in the private club laws among entities that could qualify as private clubs. For a while now, some restaurants have been granted private club licenses. However, passage of HB1570 would have resulted in a rapid and dramatic rise in the number of restaurants applying for and being awarded private club licenses. We were fortunate to have blocked this bill.
Senate Bill 892 was a bill that we initiated. This measure would have required each nonprofit corporation that held a private club license to file annually with the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division (ABCD) documentation, proving that it continued to be a bona fide nonprofit organization. After the bill passed the senate by a unanimous vote, the ABCD director advised the sponsor of the bill that he would promulgate rules and regulations that would accomplish all the objectives of SB892. The sponsor agreed to that. If the ABCD does not get this right, we can come back in 2011 with the same bill and get it adopted as statutory law.
Another success this session that didn’t involve a filed bill has to do with medical marijuana. We had successfully opposed bills to legalize medical marijuana in several past sessions. This is another instance where we think our past experiences inhibited the filing of another such bill. By the way, those initiatives are less about alleviating pain and suffering for patients with debilitating ailments and more about taking a big step toward the full legalization of marijuana for recreational drug use.
Act 1293 (HB1640) is a law that has proved to significantly reduce the incidences of repeat DWI offenders in the states where it has been adopted. This law requires that during the probationary period imposed by the court, a defendant guilty of a first offense DWI can operate his motor vehicle only after having his breath checked by a high tech interlock ignition device installed in the vehicle. If the device detects the presence of alcohol, the auto’s engine cannot be started. This is a common sense law.
Act 294 (SB121) proved to be one of the two most confusing laws to emerge from the session. The other is the amendment to the state’s charitable bingo law, which I will discuss in another section. Act 294 is 30 pages long and deals almost entirely with increases in various fees and charges for the many different kinds of permits for the wholesale and retail sales of alcoholic beverages and the manufacture of alcoholic beverages in the state. The only provisions that drew our attention was one to extend Sunday sales of alcohol by four hours for on-premises consumption and the other changed the method by which local option elections are called to approve the Sunday sales of alcoholic beverages for off-premises consumption. Both of those features would apply to only wet counties; neither would have any impact on dry counties. Also, neither of those proposals represented dramatic changes in current law. Also, there was almost no concern expressed by members of our grass roots network who lived in wet counties and so, those provisions were adopted. However, apparently there was another provision – a stealthy one — included in the bill, which according to some interpretations grants permission to those holding permits to sale alcohol for on-premises consumption Monday through Saturday in wet counties to add Sunday sales without having to go through a local option election. It is not certain yet that the law allows that right, and it may take litigation to settle the issue. If the law does give the green light for Sunday sales in wet counties without a requirement of an election, there appears to be relief for those wanting to keep Sundays dry in their wet cities and counties. That relief can be found in the item described next, Act 763.
Act 763 (SB923) is a simple law that provides that a city, town, or county in a wet county may establish by ordinance a lesser period of time or no time at all during which on-premises consumption of alcohol may occur at on-premises outlets on Sundays.
Issues Involving the Care and Well-being of Children at Risk
Act 196 (HB1113) is the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban law. This law is important in several respects. First, it represents strong pro-life policy. While it is likely that Act 196 won’t
initially prohibit large numbers of abortions (since presently there are few such
late-term abortions performed in our state), it may block many future ones. What we know for certain is that this new law is a clear and bold statement that Arkansans respect human life and will do all they can to defend and protect the most innocent and defenseless among us. Federal law limits how far states can go in restricting abortion. Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld as constitutional a law from another state that is identical to Act 196. This is a good and proper law.
Act 391 (SB359) is a practical and compassionate law. It will require that every foster child aging out of foster care without the benefit of having a permanent adoptive family must be given assistance in preparing for life as an independent adult. All of those children will be provided with help in developing a plan to transition into adulthood with information regarding their options and services available to them, with the means they can use to enhance their abilities and skills, and similar kinds of services. It is a good measure that will help meet the needs of “the least of these.”
Act 1399 (HB2099) is a law to improve and make more efficient the adoption procedures in Arkansas. This will largely be accomplished by implementing better and more complete record keeping.
Acts 352 (HB1585) and 976 (HB1586) both involve providing alcohol to a minor. Act 352 enhances the penalties for furnishing alcohol to a minor and Act 976 establishes penalties for an adult who hosts a function at which alcohol is served to a minor on property he or she controls.
Issues Involving Gambling
Acts 606 (HB1002) and 605 (SB26) are identical laws establishing the Arkansas lottery. In the November 2008 general election, voters indicated that they wanted a lottery. Legislators gave them what they demanded. We knew that our requests regarding provisions we desired in the lottery law would have to be modest, and they were. We asked that video lottery terminals be prohibited, and they are. We sought provisions that would make it illegal to sale lottery tickets to minors, and we got that. We wanted the law to require that the odds of winning the various lottery games be published on the tickets themselves and elsewhere. The law gives the lottery commission the option of publishing odds, but does not require it to do so. We will ask the commission to do that. We asked that the law prohibit the commission from having Arkansas participate in the Power Ball lottery or other multi-state lottery, but legislators chose not to write that into the law. Lastly, we desired that the law mandate transparency in the lottery commission’s deliberations and procedures and how the lottery is operated. The law seems to provide that feature.
Act 499 (HB1111) is a law that for some reason seemed to begin and remain somewhat of an enigma. By its terms, it was largely about reducing the tax that nonprofit organizations conducting bingo have to collect from players and remit to the state. A fair reading of the bill rendered that same conclusion. However, others said that the tweaking that the bill did to the state’s charitable bingo law would open the door to commercial bingo operations that would conduct their games under the guise of being charitable organizations. Officials with the Department of Finance and Administration, the agency charged with enforcing the charitable bingo law, reassured us repeatedly that nothing in HB1111 would prevent or hinder them from continuing to enforce the law and from effectively keeping those commercial bingo operators out of Arkansas. I suppose the full effects of Act 499 won’t be known for some time. Should the new law begin to be abused and circumvented by those non-bona fide organizations, we will be the first in line in the 2011 legislative session to amend the law to preclude that.
House Bill 1032 began as another charitable bingo law. It remained dormant until near the end of the session. We got word that the bill would be amended to essentially allow nonprofit organizations to run unlimited raffles, which could result in nonstop raffle games – one after another – for as long as the organization wanted to run them. We raised the alarm loudly, and the bill was quickly dropped.
Bills We Supported That Expired With Session Adjournment
House Bill 1459 didn’t survive adjournment. It would have extended from 5 to 10 years the “look back” period during which a previous DWI could be used to enhance the punishment for a subsequent DWI.
House Bill 1566, another bill that didn’t make it through the session, would have enhanced the penalties for providing pornography to a minor.
House Bill 1578 met the same fate as the two previous bills. It would have expanded and improved the procedures and requirements regarding the registration and monitoring of sex offenders.
A Look Ahead
In a general sense, the regular and routine work of the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council continues. Please don’t hesitate to contact us with questions, for assistance, or with any other needs we can meet.
Thank you for standing with us, praying for us, supporting us, and allowing us to serve you.
May God richly bless you, your family, and your ministry and all your undertakings.