UPDATE Senate OKs school choice bill; House puts off override vote


LITTLE ROCK — A bill intended to replace Arkansas’ stricken school choice law passed the Senate on Thursday, while the House approved human trafficking legislation and measures aimed at protecting the privacy of workers and students with social media accounts.

The House put off an attempt to override a gubernatorial veto of legislation to require voters to show photo identification when they go to the polls.

The Senate passed Senate Bill 65, the school choice measure, by 34-0 and sent it to the House, where the sponsor, Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, pledged it would get a major rewrite.

In its present form, the bill would remove race as a factor in student transfers between school districts. He said he would amend the bill in the House to cap the number of student transfers at 3 percent annually and to include a July 1, 2015, expiration date.

He said he also would add a requirement that the state Department of Education collect transfer data and report to the education committee. Other changes he said he will propose would restrict transfers from districts currently under desegregation orders, and would specify that all transfers approved prior to enactment of the proposed new law would be exempt from it.

“When I started on this I knew that I was not going to make everyone happy,” Key said while presenting his bill. “A bill like this, that has such history involved in it, is a bill that is going to be tough.”

Last year, U.S. District Judge Robert T. Dawson struck down Arkansas’ school choice law, ruling that a race-based provision in the 1989 statute that restricted some transfers to prevent re-segregation violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law.

The ruling was appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, which heard oral arguments in January.

Earlier this month, the House Education Committee rejected a separate school choice proposal after several committee members indicated they wanted to wait until the federal appeals court ruling.

Key says adopting his proposal would allow lawmakers to revisit school choice in two years in light of the federal appeals court ruling.

The Senate also voted 34-1 to approve House Bill 1690 by Rep. Debra Hobbs, R-Rogers, which would require public schools to observe a one-minute period of silence at the beginning of each school day. The bill goes to the governor.

Human trafficking

In the House, members passed HB 1581 by 85-1. The bill by Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, would allow a victim of human trafficking who has been convicted of prostitution that resulted from human trafficking to have the record of the conviction sealed.

The bill also would require the posting of information about human trafficking, including a national hotline number, in bars, nightclubs, strip clubs, airports, train stations, bus stations and truck stops. Hotels and motels would have to post the information if they have been cited as public nuisances because of prostitution.

The measure goes to the Senate.

Social media privacy

The House passed two bills by Rep. Nate Steel, D-Nashville, to protect the privacy of people with social media accounts.

HB 1901, which passed 92-0, would prohibit an employer from requiring a current or prospective employee to disclose his or her user name or password for a social media account. HB 1902, which passed 94-0, would prohibit an institution of higher education from requiring the same of a current or prospective employee or student.

Both bills go to the Senate.

Cyberbullying

In an 88-0 vote, the House approved HB 2000 by Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, which would amend the definition of cyberbullying to exclude electronic communications intended to “alarm” another person. The definition would continue to include electronic communications intended to frighten, coerce, intimidate, threaten, abuse or harass another person.

“If you were to send an email to someone and say that you were opposed to their bill, that could cause them alarm. That’s just one example,” Bell said.

The bill goes to the Senate.

The House voted 87-0 to approve HB 2014 by Bell, which would allow an employee of a detention facility to carry a firearm if the employee has received firearms training. The bill goes to the Senate.

Veto override vote delayed

The Senate on Wednesday voted to override Gov. Mike Beebe’s veto of Senate Bill 2, the voter ID bill, and the House was expected to take an override vote Thursday.

But House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, told reporters that taking into account an already lengthy Thursday calendar and lawmakers’ desire for a long Easter weekend, he decided a veto override vote could wait until next week.

School distress

Also Thursday, Senate also passed HB 1770 by Rep. Mark Perry, D-Jacksonville, which would change the maximum amount of time that a school or school district can be in fiscal distress, academic distress or facilities distress from two years to five years.

Key, who presented the bill in the Senate, said it is supported by the state Department of Education. He also said a school or district that does not get out of distress within five years would be consolidated, annexed or reconstituted, which is currently the fate of districts that do not get out of distress within two years.

The bill passed 28-2 and goes to the governor.

Other bills

Other bills passed by the Senate:

—HB 2088 by Rep. Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, which prioritizes the distribution of water during a water shortage. Under the bill, residents of the municipal water system will get top priority, followed by agriculture, industry, minimum stream flow, hydro-electric power and recreation.

The bill passed 27-6 and goes to the governor.

—HB 1929 by Rep. Andy Davis, R-Little Rock, which would establish new criteria and procedures for assessing water quality in Arkansas streams that are not part of a city or municipal water supply. The bill passed 20-13 and goes to the governor.

—HB 1457 by Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, which would allow the secretary of state, who serves as chairman of the nine-member State Board of Elections, to appoint someone to represent him at board meetings. The bill stipulates that the person appointed would serve as chairman.

The bill passed to 23-3 and goes to the governor.

—SB 1060 by Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, which would limit what an uninsured driver can seek in a civil lawsuit against an insured driver. Under the proposal, the uninsured driver would be able to seek damages for medical expenses, property damage and lost wages. They would not be able to seek damages for emotional distress or pain and suffering.

Hester said the bill could cause auto insurance rates in the state to drop. The bill passed 20-7 and goes to the House.