Sep 13, 2023 - News

Arkansas lawmakers mull changes to public-records law

Cortney Kennedy, interim chief legal counsel of the governor's office, and Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) speak Tuesday on behalf of SB9.

Day two of Arkansas' legislative special session was bogged down by a five-hour committee meeting Tuesday. Testimony over a proposed bill that could substantially modify rules governing access to public records dominated the day.

  • With no vote, the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs adjourned after hearing testimony from supporters and opponents.

Why it matters: The state's Freedom of Information Act protects the public's right to access many government documents and is frequently used to hold officials accountable for taxpayers' dollars.

Driving the news: Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Friday called Arkansas lawmakers into the special session that began Monday and is scheduled to end today.

  • She specifically told the legislators to pursue bills that would lower income taxes, ban COVID-19 mask and vaccine mandates, and make changes to the state's Freedom of Information law (FOI).
  • Sanders said the FOI law needs to be updated with electronic communications in mind, to make government more efficient, and cited personal security concerns.

Worth noting: Lawyer Matt Campbell, author of the blog Blue Hog Report, last week filed a lawsuit against the Arkansas State Police stemming from a declined FOI request for Sanders' travel details and expenses.

Catch up quick:

1. Freedom of Information Act ā€” The Arkansas Senate worked late Monday amending the measure to address pushback from legislators and the Arkansas Freedom of Information Task Force that the bill was too broad. The revised Senate Bill 9 was filed at 9:30pm that evening.

  • In its current form, the bill exempts communications between the governor and cabinet members; documents "prepared by an attorney" representing a state official or agency that could be used in pending lawsuits; and records that reflect security planning for state constitutional officers.
  • The bill also would make it harder for those who sue local governments under FOI to recover legal fees.
  • Testimony for and against the bill began at 11am Tuesday and ended at 4pm.

Of note: Tuesday afternoon, Rep. Julie Mayberry (R-Hensley) filed an alternative bill, HB1011, which narrowly defines amendments of the FOI law to security issues related to the state's constitutional officers. No actions have yet been scheduled for the bill.

2. Tax cuts ā€” The Senate passed its version of the tax cut bill Tuesday morning and sent it to the House for further consideration.

  • The proposed measure would cut the state's top individual income tax rate from 4.7% to 4.4% and its top corporate income tax rate from 5.1% to 4.8%, effective Jan. 1, 2024. It also would grant up to a $150 one-time income tax credit for taxpayers making less than $90,000 a year, retroactive to Jan. 1, 2023.

3. COVID-19 mandates ā€” State senators passed a measure to ban state and local governments from mandating that an individual receive a vaccine for COVID-19 or its subvariants.

  • The bill goes to the House for consideration.

What we're watching: The House is scheduled to reconvene at 8:30am Wednesday and the Senate at 9am.

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