State Capitol Week in Review – April 9, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas became the first state in the nation to prohibit physicians from performing gender transition procedures on minors, either through surgery or hormone therapy.


Sponsors of the bill said that children needed protection from experimentation. They said that minors are too young to make such important decisions as choosing a sex change, which has long-term health effects that can be irreversible.


The governor vetoed the legislation, House Bill 1570, saying that it put government between physicians and young people and their parents. He also noted that some young people in Arkansas are currently undergoing a gender change and will not be allowed continued treatment.


The legislature voted to override the veto. The Senate vote was 25-to-8 and in the House it was 71-to-24.


HB 1570 is one of several bills this legislative session that affect transgender people.


Act 461 effectively prohibits transgender boys who identify as girls from competing in sports. It allows a civil action by girls who are deprived of athletic opportunities because the school allowed a boy to compete instead. In the lawsuit, the girl could seek monetary damages for any psychological, emotional or physical harm.


A similar measure, Senate Bill 450, has been approved by the Senate. It requires schools to designate their varsity sports programs for girls, boys or coed. If a boy is allowed to play a girls sports, the girl can file a lawsuit to stop it, and the school could lose its public funding.


In other news the Senate approved SB 622, a version of what is has been labelled as a “hate crimes” bill. It mandates longer prison sentences for violent offenders who target someone who is in a “recognizable and identifiable group or class who share mental, physical, biological, cultural, political, or religious beliefs or characteristics.”


Under SB 622, offenders would not be eligible for parole until they have served at least 80 percent of their original sentence if they purposely chose a victim because of the victim’s class or group.


Prosecutors would have to ask for delayed release during the initial trial. The judge or jury would determine whether the offender’s release should be delayed because of the aggravating circumstances.


According to the FBI, in 2019 there were nine crimes committed in Arkansas whose causes were related to bias. However, not all of the state’s law enforcement agencies reported to the FBI.


Also last week, the Senate approved HB 1614 to raise teacher salaries in districts where they earn less than the state average. Disparities in salaries is one of the major obstacles in recruiting and retaining good teachers in small, rural and isolated districts.


According to state education officials, the gap in salaries between the richest and the poorest school districts is more than $21,000 a year.


HB 1614 creates a special “equalization” fund that will start with about $25 million, which will be distributed to schools that now pay less than the state average teacher salary.


It’s estimated that the money will increase average teacher salaries in those districts by about $2,000 over the next two years. Last year the average teacher salary for Arkansas was $49,822.


Over the next two years, the goal of HB 1614 is to bring the average salary up to $51,822.