Tue, Sep 12, 2023 4:53 PM
By Kim Jarrett, The Center Square
The Arkansas Senate withdrew a bill that would have changed the state's Freedom of Information Act law after a five-hour hearing on Tuesday.
The bill, sponsored by Senate Pro Tem Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, would have shielded past travel and security records of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who said the bill was necessary to protect her family. Communications between the governor and member of her cabinet would not be accessible under FOIA. '
Lawmakers revised the bill on Monday night after receiving criticism for both parties.
The Senate State Agencies and Government Affairs Committee hearing was often tense as lawmakers sparred with speakers.
"This bill is not just an attack on transparency, or accountability, it's also an assault on our public," said Jennifer Lancaster, an attorney and president of the Saline County Republican Women. "If you all were truly concerned about her security, we would see a proposed bill with a very narrowly tailored exception for her and her family's security. And I imagine that would have bipartisan support. But what we are seeing is that is being used as an excuse to pass a sweeping bill that is effectively gutting FOIA."
Lancaster said the lawmakers spent Monday revising the bill "behind closed doors."
"You can call it behind closed doors, whatever you want to call it," said Committee Chair Blake Johnson, R-Corning, said the Legislature was responding to the call for the special session by Sanders. "That's how things get done, is to get this better product. You see the product in front of you. It was not something just crazy wicked and I am not going to accept that to be put out in this committee. It is not crazy wicked what was done to get this product in front of you today."
"I believe you are putting words in my mouth," Lancaster responded. "I didn't say crazy, wicked but I would also ask who is it truly better for, the bureaucrats or the people."
Johnson said the bill "is better for your government to function."
"You can put a black cloud over what we have done in the last day but I'm not going to accept it," Johnson said.
Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, said the bill should not go outside the scope of information on the governor's security detail.
"This is like a tragedy, why we are doing it," King said.
A House version of the bill is still on the table. It is assigned to the House Committee on State Agencies and Government Affairs.