LITTLE ROCK – Loyalists on both sides of social issues are gearing for a new round of clashes next year when the Legislature convenes with a new Republican majority.
Supporters of conservative causes such as restricting abortion rights expressed new optimism last week because of the coming shift in the legislative majority after nearly 140 years of Democratic control.
Opponents say they are ready for a fight.
“We’re ready for all of them,” said Rita Sklar, executive director of the Arkansas Chapter of the Americans for Civil Liberties Union. “Let it be said that we have been preparing for the usual battles and are ready to go.”
Leaders of the conservative Family Council and Arkansas Right to Life said several bills designed to curb abortions are expected to be filed during the 89th General Assembly that convenes Jan. 14. , along with measures to enhance religious freedom and restrict the state lottery.
“I expect it to be substantially easier in the Senate and slightly easier in the House,” said Family Council Executive Director Jerry Cox, noting that in 2011 the Legislature approved just one abortion bill, House Bill 1855, now Act 1176 of 2011, which requires any abortion provider who provides 10 abortions a month to be licensed by the state. Myriad other bills on the subject died in committee.
Democrats held a 20-15 majority in the Senate and a 54-46 majority in the House, as well as majorities in most major legislative committees. As a result of the Nov. 6 general election, Republicans will hold 21 of the 35 Senate seats and a 51-48 edge in the House, which will have one Green Party member who previously served as a Democrat.
Rose Mims, president of Arkansas Right to Life, said prospects for anti-abortion measures should improve with GOP majorities, but she said there are no sure things.
“It’s certainly not going to be easy, but I think we’ll get it done,” Mims said.
Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, a social conservative, will chair the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee next year. The panel will be comprised of four Republicans and four Democrats. The 20-member House public health panel will have 10 Democrats, nine Republicans and one member from the Green Party.
House committee chairs will be announced in January.
Rep. Ann Clemmer, R-Benton, said she expects vigorous debates on social issues, but she cautioned that having a Republican legislative majority will not guarantee their approval.
“The thing about being the majority is, it’s great, it’s history making, but it’s the narrowest of possible majorities” in the House, Clemmer said.
“(Republicans) are not going to be able to walk in and put our hands on our hips and say ‘there’s a new sheriff in town now and this is the way it’s going to be,’” she said. “We may not be able to hold every single last one of our people. We’ve still got to work to find room for compromise.”
Clemmer said she is considering filing legislation to set the percentage of lottery revenue that goes to college scholarships.
In 2011, she proposed a constitutional amendment that would have mandated that at least 35 percent of proceeds from the state lottery be used to fund college scholarships. The amendment that authorized a state lottery set no minimum percentage.
The proposal died in committee. Clemmer said she is considering a similar proposal for the upcoming legislative session.
“I am definitely looking at it,” she said, noting that currently about 20 percent of lottery proceeds go to scholarships.
“I think that is extremely low,” Clemmer said. “I don’t think that is what the people voted for. We were also second- or third-highest in cost of administration two years ago.”
Mims said Arkansas Right to Life will push three abortion proposals during the session, including one that would ban abortions beyond the time fetuses are thought to feel pain.
At a legislative hearing in 2011, supporters told the House public health committee that studies have shown a fetus is capable of feeling pain after 20 weeks. The measure failed in that committee.
“This is an attempt to appeal to people’s emotions,” Sklar said last week, adding that the proposal “is not based in science and it’s a cynical political move.
“I think it’s high time people realize that women want to make their own medical decisions and for people in the medical field to decide what is best medical practice, and not legislators.”
Another anti-abortion proposal Mims said she hopes will be considered is a ban on so-called “web-cam abortions” in Arkansas.
Sklar said doctors currently do not prescribe abortion medications by web-cam and that the proposal “is a solution looking for a problem.”
Mims said Arkansas Right to Life wants the Legislature to opt out of abortion coverage in the federal Affordable Care Act.
States have permission under the federal health care reform law to opt out of abortion coverage in their health insurance exchange, Mims said. Failing to opt out would put Arkansas in conflict with Amendment 68, which prohibits public funding of an abortion, except to save the mother’s life.
Cox said the Family Council is working with Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, on legislation that would prohibit any government entity from burdening a person’s free exercise of religion unless it can show that doing so is essential to further a compelling governmental interest and that it is doing so by the least restrictive means.
The bill, similar to one that passed the House in 2011 but died in a Senate committee, also would allow people to sue a government entity that burdens their exercise of religion and to collect damages, costs and attorney’s fees if they prevail.
While the First Amendment prohibits government from prohibiting the free exercise of religion, Cox said the measure Hammer will sponsor is necessary to strengthen protections at the state level because of a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that he said weakened protections at the federal level.
The high court ruled that the First Amendment did not protect a person’s right to ingest peyote as part of a religious ceremony. Hammer said several states have filed laws similar to his bill in response to the ruling.
“I don’t know how far we are going to get with that one, but that is one we’re certainly looking at,” Cox said.