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Legislative Wrap-Up: Missed Opportunities – Part 1

The 2021 Legislative session captured headlines for some of the bills that were passed. But I think some of what my colleagues turned their noses up to is just as noteworthy and highlights some of the biggest missteps of the session. I touched on some of the bills that didn’t see the light of day when writing on education, voting, and violence in previous reviews. Still, I felt it necessary to zero in on some of the 93rd General Assembly’s missed opportunities.

No bill stands out to me as such a missed no-brainer as Senate Bill 3, the so-common-sense-that-it-must-be-evil hate crimes bill.

SB3, by design, would have created a sentence enhancement for certain offenses committed against a person due to the person’s attributes and would have required an annual report on such crimes. It was one of the first bills filed, well before the session began, and had a bevy of bipartisan sponsors and cosponsors.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Arkansas is one of three states in the nation that has yet to pass an actual hate crimes bill. SB3 would have created a 20% sentencing enhancement for offenses committed due to the victim’s race, color, religion, ethnicity, ancestry, national origin, homelessness, gender identity, sexual orientation, sex, disability, or service in U.S. Armed Forces. Just as necessary as the sentence enhancement itself was the requirement to collect data on these crimes report them each year.

A scaled-back hate crimes bill in name only was eventually passed. The bill that did pass was broad and vague. It didn’t identify any certain groups, and it didn’t include misdemeanors like vandalism. It’s curious to me why some would fight so hard to replace SB3 with a bill that opens the door to so much ambiguity and deliberately gives hate-inspired vandals a pass. At this time, it’s even unclear whether this bill will meet the criteria to be nationally recognized as a hate crime bill.

There was no lack of public support for a real hate crimes bill. The Governor, state chamber, attorney general, and our local Fortune 500 companies called on lawmakers to get it done. But, unfortunately, when faced with an opportunity to get it done, a few of my senate colleagues, with nonsensical excuses and questionable motives, made sure it never went anywhere.

House Bill 1563 stands out to me as another missed opportunity from this year’s session. The bill, sponsored by a Republican, would have amended the Arkansas Residential Landlord-Tenant Act of 2007, create a civil eviction process, and require a minimum habitability standard for residents.

Ensure tenants have habitable homes? Some of my colleagues apparently shudder at the thought.

HB1563, by definition, establishes a renter’s warranty of habitability, and a civil eviction process, including provisions on notice, complaint requirements, jurisdiction, civil pleadings, etc.; prohibits certain terms and conditions in rental agreements; creates a duty that the landlord maintain habitable premises. It would:

  • Require landlords to comply with current building, house, fire, and health codes, ensuring common areas are safe; roofs, doors, and windows are waterproof; walls, floors, ceilings, stairs, and railings are structurally sound; locks and security devices are on all exterior doors, windows can be opened and closed, and fire and carbon monoxide detectors are present.

  • Create a process that guarantees renters facing eviction have a court hearing within 21 days of a complaint being filed and without having to first deposit with the court the amount they are alleged to owe.

In this case, Arkansas is not just one of a few states holding out on doing right by renters. Instead, it’s the last state to do so. Going into the session, Arkansas was the only state that did not require residential landlords to maintain a safe and habitable dwelling for tenants. In all other states, landlords have some legal duty to repair and maintain a healthy and sound rental unit. Yet, it is still the only state whose lawmakers thumb their noses at citizens who cannot afford to own their own homes. Fast facts:

  • One-third of Arkansans are residential renters, accounting for 34% of Arkansas’ housing, or about 450,000 rental units.

  • HB1563 had broad and politically diverse backing, from progressive local activists and Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, as well as the AARP and the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity.

As with SB3, broad public support and a national impetus meant little to the lawmakers who made sure this House bill never made it out of committee. What a shame.


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