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Legislative Wrap-Up: Missed Opportunities – Part 3

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.

Did you know Arkansas ranks No. 1 in the nation for teen pregnancies? You can be forgiven for not knowing, especially given the push by the partisan majority in the legislature to limit reproductive health care options for Arkansas women. But it’s this fact that led to the filing of Senate Bill 655.

SB655, had it passed, would have created the Education for Healthy Youth Act, a measure addressing health and sex education curriculum in Arkansas schools.

Oh, the horror.

Had the bill gotten the approval of the legislature, SB655 would have required public schools and public charters to offer to K-12 students health education that is medically accurate and complete, age and developmentally appropriate, and culturally appropriate (culturally appropriate meaning that materials reflect the culture of the students being taught, i.e., respectfully including the culture, religion, ethnicity, etc., of that community).

Under the measure, school curriculum would have included…

  • Learning about how harmful gender stereotypes, violence, coercion, and bullying, and intimidation in relationships is.

  • Promoting positive body image among students, which includes developing an understanding that there are a range of body types, and students should feel positive about their own body types

  • The importance of effectively using condoms and preventive medication to protect against sexually transmitted infections

· Allows parents and guardians to review the curricula upon request.

In addition to leading the country in teen pregnancies, Arkansas teenagers also experience physical dating violence at a rate higher than any other state in the United States. Here are some other important facts to keep in mind…

  • 22% of adolescent girls and 16.15 of adolescent boys report being raped during their lifetime in Arkansas

· 46% of Arkansas high school students report being sexually active, and only half of those students report using effective contraception like condoms.

· The total economic cost of teenage pregnancy in Arkansas was estimated at $143,000,000 in 2008.

That’s jarring. What are we, as a legislative body, doing to address these devastatingly important issues? Perhaps requiring scared, pregnant teens to call a hotline will make things better. Or perhaps a stand-your-ground law will curb the rate of rape and relationship violence.

Parents, legal guardians, the general public, and young people overwhelmingly support comprehensive relationship education. Polling has found that 96% of parents endorse providing relationship education in high school and 93% of parents support providing relationship education in middle school.

But if you’ve picked up on any sort of trend in this commentary, it’s that the partisan majority in the legislature cares very little about what the general public or even critical stakeholders think when it comes to addressing (or ignoring entirely) important issues. SB655 was DOA.

I’ll conclude my commentary on missed opportunities with a bill that I filed.

Senate Bill 700 would have required the Arkansas Attorney General to prepare reports for the legislative council biannually summarizing all lawsuits in which the Attorney General provided representation. I, and my colleagues who cosponsored the measure, weren’t looking to measure the litigation skills of our state’s top attorney. The goal was to shed light on the amount of time and tax dollars spent fighting partisan battles, especially those unwinnable and sometimes unconstitutional political theatre pieces.

In putting this measure together, I borrowed language from a bill that was passed that required the Attorney General to report to the Arkansas Legislative Council quarterly on the executive orders of the United States. This was simply a blatant political act and waste of taxpayer dollars with no Constitutional authority to act on anything that they might disagree with. This was passed in light of President Trump issuing more executive orders than any predessor during a four year period.

I followed the same script, but requiring the AG report to ALC on ongoing lawsuits that involded defending unconstutional bills.

sure to dot my “i’s” and cross my “t’s” in that I carefully borrowed language from a passed bill that called for transparency in reporting the impact of federal mandates.

The measure, had it passed, would have included…

· The total amount of tax dollars spent defending or prosecuting each lawsuit.

· If the state was successful in defending the suit or obtaining an award, and the amount of the award or settlement.

· The state entity, state employee, or elected official that is the subject of the lawsuit, if any.

· The act, statute, policy, program, or rule being challenged.

State agencies are required to compile periodic reports on their work. That’s as commonplace in government work as anything. Why wouldn’t – or why shouldn’t – the attorney general’s office compile the occasional report showing how they are spending government time and taxpayer dollars?

Such a measure, were it to pass, would have thrown a light of transparency on the political theatre of knowingly passing unconstitutional bills or fighting needless legal battles for the sake of personal marketing. Shutting down such a simple, commonsense request would probably demonstrate some sort of partisan bias or ulterior motive, while I would imagine most Arkansans would prefer to know how their tax dollars are spent.

But, like the others, this bill was killed in State Agencies Committee, even though it had some Republican support, by lawmakers who apparently stand to gain more from theatre than transparency. If you’re in business, and you have an employee who is costing you money, you should be aware of that so you can act accordingly.

I counted at least 14 bills that were constitutionally suspect. Already, at least have a dozen are being challenged. If lawmakers who champion for these legislations were responsible for paying for the defense, rather than the tax payers, they would be so eager to pursue these bills.


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