‘CLASS PROTECTION’ bill sent to Hutchinson.
The Arkansas House voted Monday to send a “class protection” bill to Gov. Asa Hutchinson, as sponsors overcame discontent in both parties about the bill’s language and the manner by which it came to the chamber floor with the backing of legislative leaders.
House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, spoke for Senate Bill 622 and defended the legislation on both fronts Monday, asking lawmakers to judge it on its merits.
The legislation would limit parole eligibility for violent criminals who target victims within a “recognizable and identifiable” group. The bill was pitched by leaders as a workable solution after decades of calls for Arkansas to adopt tough penalties for hate crimes. However, SB622 was quickly denounced as inadequate by hate crimes bill advocates and officials who have worked in the past to draft such laws.
The bill also drew opposition from some conservative groups, including the Family Council, which likened it to other hate crimes bills and argued that it would target people for their religious beliefs.
The sponsors themselves had called the bill a class-protection bill to differentiate it from previously failed attempts to enact a hate crimes law, including during this session.
“It’s not the title that matters, what matters is the substance of the bill,” Shepherd said. “The bill in front of you today is comprehensive, it’s substantial and I believe it’s the right bill for the state of Arkansas.”
Shepherd expressed support for the chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Carol Dalby, R-Texarkana, and her decision Thursday to send the bill to the House floor over the objections of committee members seeking a roll-call vote.
Shepherd upheld Dalby’s ruling, causing the committee’s vice chairman, Rep. Brandt Smith, R-Jonesboro, to appeal the matter to the entire House.
In a pair of votes that stretched debate on the bill to more than an hour, the House voted 61-34 to uphold the procedural ruling and then 6526 to pass the bill, with five members voting present.
The second vote sent the bill to Hutchinson, who quickly declared his intent to sign it.
“This is a stronger version of hate crime legislation than many states have, and I applaud Speaker Shepherd and [Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana] for getting this done,” the governor said.
Hutchinson’s statement also addressed an earlier version of hate crimes legislation, which included specific protections for crimes committed against Arkansans based on race, sexual orientation or gender identity. That bill eventually died in committee without any Republican support.
“While I supported a more specific version of a hate crime bill … The protection provided and the increased penalties are the ultimate test, and while I preferred different language, I am confident that this bill accomplishes the objective of increased penalties for hate crimes,” Hutchinson said.
Without those targeted groups specifically included in SB622, organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League said they would not consider Arkansas to be among the states that have passed hate crimes legislation.
Arkansas, South Carolina and Wyoming are the only states without such a law.
Because of that distinction, business groups and the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce pushed for the passage of SB622, even as no members of the minority or LGBTQ communities spoke in favor of the bill during public hearings.
“This bill is not about checking a box and it’s not about talent, it’s about addressing a problem,” said Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff. “Why would we be afraid to address the fact that there are people out there who are racist, there are people out there who are misogynists, there are people out there who hate people because of their religion?”
Walmart Inc. released a statement from President Doug McMillon on Monday applauding the Legislature for passing “long-overdue hate crimes legislation,” while also condemning the membership over a series of bills “targeting” the LGBTQ community.
“These kinds of bills make it harder for employers to grow, recruit and retain talent that contributes to the state’s economic growth,” McMillon said. “We will continue to advocate on behalf of our associates so their voices are heard and protected.”
The vote to send SB622 to the governor divided both parties. A dozen Republicans joined 14 Democrats who opposed the bill. Seven Democrats and the majority of Republicans voted yes.
Republicans also split on whether to support Shepherd’s decision to uphold the ruling that sent the bill to the House floor. Only one Democrat joined the 34 members who voted to overturn the ruling — House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock.
McCullough said Thursday that many Democrats probably voted against overruling the speaker as a show of support.