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UPDATE: Senate President Pro Tempore Bart Hester late Monday night introduced a new version of the bill to add exemptions to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. It can be read here.
Proposed new exemptions to Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act drew strong opposition across the political spectrum over the weekend, forcing legislative leaders to scramble for votes on Monday.
The Arkansas House and Senate convened at 11 a.m. to start a special session called by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders that was to focus on two key items: cutting income taxes and amending state public records laws.
A Senate committee quickly approved the proposed tax cuts, but the fate of the FOIA measure remained in limbo as of 8 p.m. Monday night.
- Records that reflect the planning or provision of security services provided to the governor and other state elected officials.
- Records revealing the deliberative process of state agencies, boards, or commissions.
- Records prepared by an attorney representing an elected or appointed state officer, state employee, or state agency, board, or commission in anticipation of litigation or for use in pending litigation.
- Records created or received by an elected or appointed state officer, state employee, or state agency, board, or commission that would be covered by attorney-client privilege.
Social media erupted with condemnation over the proposed changes, not only from the usual free-press advocates but from conservative quarters as well.
Shortly after the bills were filed on Friday, Pulaski County’s Republican Party took to Facebook in a post that agreed with Democratic blogger Matt Campbell (aka Blue Hog Report).
The ultra-conservative Saline County Republican Committee also took a strong stance against the bills, posting on Facebook:
SB7 and HB1003 (the same bills) are sponsored by Saline county legislators: Senator Kim Hammer, Senator Matt McKee, Representative Mary Bentley, and Representative Keith Brooks. Our party platform states, “We firmly support transparency and openness at every level of government. Those elected, appointed, and employed in government work for the taxpayers and must provide public information when requested, in line with Arkansas’s Freedom of Information Act.” Why should we settle for less transparency in the reddest state in the nation? Call your legislators today and let them know what you think about these bills.
The Arkansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity also urged members to call their legislators:
“Privacy is for citizens, and transparency is for government.”
Americans for Prosperity is deeply concerned about the proposed reforms to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
These changes risk reducing government transparency by introducing broad exemptions and limiting public access to crucial information. Transparent government is a cornerstone of democracy.
Join us in advocating for a FOIA that serves the people and protects government accountability by finding your legislator HERE: https://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/Legislators/List and letting them know you support strong transparency.
Legislative leaders apparently were not prepared for the blowback.
After Republican lawmakers joined Democrats in the House of Representatives to vote against a suspension of rules that would have let the bills move more quickly through committee and onto the floor, the Speaker called for a recess. Later, the House adjourned without holding any committee meetings.
Lawmakers met with Sanders for about half an hour around noon after which she told reporters her administration would “continue working with our partners in the Legislature.”
Over in the Senate, President Pro Tempore Bart Hester promised either an amended bill or a completely rewritten bill by late afternoon with “minor” changes. He rejected an attempt by Democratic Sen. Stephanie Flowers of Pine Bluff to put off debate until Tuesday on whatever resulted from intra-party discussions on a revised bill to give everyone time to digest it and for supporters and opponents prepare to testify in committee.
After Hester said he couldn’t predict when a rewritten bill would be sent to committee but that it wanted it to be Monday, Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forrest and a bill opponent, muttered, “Unbelievable.”
Nevertheless, 7 p.m. came and went with no new bill and lawmakers still waiting on leadership to give them something to work on. At 7:34 p.m., the Hester called an end to the wait, canceling a planned meeting of the State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee.
“Unbelievable” isn’t strong enough.
Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. This article was published with permission from the Arkansas Advocate. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: [email protected]. Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.