LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Opposition to proposed changes in the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act is being heard on the first day of the Arkansas General Assembly special session.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders called for the session Friday to address tax cuts, COVID-19 regulations and to make changes to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. In preparation for the session a draft of the proposed FOIA changes was circulated, showing increased restrictions on what information would be made available.
On Friday, shortly after the special session was called, Senate Bill 7 and House Bill 1003 were introduced by Sen. Scott Flippo (R-Bull Shoals) and Rep. David Ray (R-Maumelle), respectively. The identical bills contain the same changes seen in the earlier-circulated draft.
Opposition has included the state’s Freedom of Information Act Task Force, which voted Monday morning to strongly oppose the legislation, as reported by multiple outlets.
KARK 4 News reporter Samantha Boyd said a nearly-empty senate adjourned at 1 p.m., with most of the Senate Republican Caucus out of the room for a meeting with Sanders. Boyd said Sen. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville) told her senators were trying to find the right committee to introduce the FOIA bills where they would be more likely to pass.
Boyd reported hearing Sen. Bryan King (R-Green Forrest) ask Sen. Pro tempore Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) “So we don’t know if we have the votes [for the FOIA changes] before we called the special session, is that what’s going on?”
Roughly 45 minutes after the Monday adjournment, Hester told Boyd “Plans for FOI overhaul bill could become clearer later this afternoon.”
Later Monday afternoon the senate reconvened, with Hester saying there would be no FOIA vote until Tuesday, when it would be voted upon by the entire body.
No committee will be held, Hester said, although agencies will still hear public comment.
Hester said the Republican Cacus was meeting to sort out “concerns,” but was certain he would be able to pass the legislation in some form. Republicans were willing to bend on anything except the Governor’s security, he said In a Monday afternoon interview.
On Friday, shortly after Sanders’ announcement, the Pulaski County Republicans posted on Facebook a strongly-worded opposition to FOIA changes. This was followed by an equally strong post by the Saline County Republican Committee on Saturday stating its opposition to the proposed legislation.
If the proposed legislation is upheld, current FOIA requests, including a court case against the Arkansas State Police, could become moot, as the proposed legislation includes an emergency clause making it retroactive to Jan. 1, 2022.
The Arkansas FOIA was signed into law by Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in February 1967. The attorney general’s website states that the current law is “generally considered one of the most open in the country.”
The tax cuts being discussed during the special session appear to be meeting with more success. The Senate Revenue and Tax Committee passed the proposed legislation Monday after a hearing that included some people speaking against the bill.
The special session will continue through Wednesday.