From the historic hallways of the most beautiful state Capitol in our great nation, this is Senator Keith Ingram.
I’m pleased to report that in spite of all you may have heard in the news lately, a spirit of bipartisanship survives at the state Capitol.
The Senate approved a couple of good bills this week that were co-sponsored by members of both political parties.
It was an encouraging reminder that in Arkansas, we have always placed more importance on getting things done, rather than on scoring political points.
The first bill was one that I co-sponsored, along with a leading member of the other party. It creates the “Arkansas Cultural Institutions Trust Fund.”
Grants from the fund will pay for renovations of buildings that house exhibits with artistic, historic and cultural significance.
The grants will be limited to 501-(c)(3) organizations. Anybody who does much volunteer work knows how overwhelming it can be to find financing for major capital improvements.
The Department of Heritage will write the rules for grant applications. When they decide who will receive funding, they’ll factor in the project’s economic impact, and how it will promote local tourism.
The other bipartisan bill passed by the Senate will strengthen the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
This is our open government law, and since it was first enacted in 1967 it has been a model for other states to follow in writing open records laws.
Contrary to popular opinion, the FOI is not just meant to benefit newspapers and the press.
It is a valuable tool for individuals, advocacy groups and political organizations that strive to make sure tax dollars are properly spent.
Local elected officials have used the FOI to make sure that boards, commissions, councils and quorum courts do not conduct business behind closed doors.
The Senate bill we passed strengthens the FOI by making it easier for plaintiffs to be awarded attorneys’ fees.
The law states that when you successfully file an FOI suit, you will be awarded attorneys’ fees. Some government entities have side-stepped this provision.
They refuse to comply until it becomes clear that they are about to lose in court, when they abruptly turn over the public records in question. Because they complied before a judge’s ruling is issued, they avoid paying attorneys’ fees.
The plaintiff, who was on the right side of the law and trying to hold government accountable, is left with a bill for legal services.
The Senate bill states that if the government entity eventually turns over the majority of the request records, it must pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees, even if the government entity complied before a judge’s final ruling.
Also this week, the Senate passed legislation to lower the age for covered colorectal cancer screenings, from 50 to 45. Health insurance will also cover any follow-up that is needed, such as a colonoscopy.
It was supported by senators of both parties, and another good example of how we can achieve benefits for the citizens of Arkansas when we put aside our political differences and work together.
From the Capitol, it is always my greatest honor and most sincere privilege to serve you as your state Senator. This is Keith Ingram.