The Arkansas Senate and the House State Agencies Committee approved bills Wednesday to exempt records related to the governor's security detail from disclosure.
The bills, the third attempt by lawmakers to amend the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, are a pared down version of two previous attempts to amend the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
But after public pressure, lawmakers have decided to forgo passing bills that would have been an expansive amendment to the state's open records and meetings law, instead supporting legislation supporters said will conceal details about the governor's security detail.
Senate Bill 10 and House Bill 1012 would require exempting only documents related to the governor's Arkansas State Police detail and "records that reflect the planning or provision of security services provided" to constitutional officers and judges.
The bill would be retroactive to June 1, 2022.
After pushback from citizens and worry from some lawmakers who were concerned about losing their seats, Sanders and the General Assembly's Republican Leadership agreed to introduce a scaled down version of their overhaul of the Freedom of Information Act.
The Senate approved SB10 in a 29-2 vote, with Democrats Greg Leding of Fayetteville and Fred Love of Mabelvale voting no. Republican Bryan King, of Green Forrest, later wrote in a letter to the director of the state Senate that he intended to vote no on the bill, but was out of the Senate Chamber when the vote was taken.
"Our bill that protects security - the most critical and important aspect of FOIA reform - just passed out of the Senate with bipartisan support," Sanders tweeted after the Senate vote. "This is a great starting place for making our government safer and more effective, and I look forward to its final passage."
The new version has been met with much less opposition, with the Arkansas Press Association the Arkansas Broadcasters Association supporting the new bills.
"We have stated we support reasonable safety provision, and these bills of that while also maintaining the strength of Arkansas' Freedom of Information Act," the Arkansas Press Association said in a statement.
Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, an opponent of prior bills, said "I told my colleagues that if we had a security only bill then I would vote for it and I want to be a man of my word."
"If I were writing this bill, I would write it differently," Tucker said. "In my personal opinion I think it's probably a little bit broader than it should be. However, when it comes to the safety and security of the governor and her family I think it's important to err on the side of their security."
But many of the bill's opponents remained against it. At House and Senate hearings Wednesday, transparency advocates such as Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen and Jimmie Cavin still argued adamantly against the bill. McCutchen said the bill's retroactive clause gave the appearance the state was trying to hide something.
"I think we need to do our business in complete sunshine, no darkness," McCutchen said. "We don't even need to have the appearance of that."
Arkansas Inspector General Allison Bragg said the bill needed to be retroactive as security plans for Sanders, whose immediate family includes five protectees, began months before the Republican governor won the election in November.
Matt Campbell, the attorney and blogger whose request for records on the governor's state police protection that prompted the bill, also remained against Senate Bill 10 saying, "These bills are a 'solution' to a problem that doesn't exist."
In August, Campbell requested records from the Arkansas State Police on how much it spent protecting Sanders. Campbell has said he's received some records, including documentation showing state police hired private pilots to fly the governor, but he expanded his request to include documents on the state's airplane's flight manifest and passenger lists.
Arkansas State Police Director Mike Hagar later criticized Campbell in testimony, saying the author of the Blue Hog Report blog was seeking records in hopes to embarrass the governor.
"Not one person has shown how records currently available under the FOIA have created a single safety concern for the Governor," Campbell said in a statement. "Worse still, as written, these bills will exempt absolutely every record held by ASP that relates to any constitutional officer, including ASP personnel files, expenditures on ASP travel, and several other categories that present no safety concern to anyone."
FACING THE HEAT
Lawmakers are set to vote on and approve the new scaled down Freedom of Information Act bills today, ending a four-day special session, House Majority Leader Marcus Richmond said.
The extraordinary session that Sanders called on Friday was meant to be a three-day affair where lawmakers would consider tax cuts and a ban on COVID-19 vaccine mandates along with an expansive overhaul to the state's FOIA.
But while the other items on the special session's agenda easily passed, Sanders's proposed changes to the state's sunshine law hit early resistance, after legislators started receiving calls and messages from their constituents over the weekend urging them to vote no.
The first sign of trouble for the first bill to amend the FOIA came Monday morning as the multiple attempts to suspend some rules that would have sped up the lawmaking process in the the Arkansas House of Representatives failed.
Before the House came into session Monday morning, the Republicans held a caucus meeting where some began to voice their concerns with the bill, Richmond said.
"We knew from the start that this was heavy lift, what we're being asked to do is a heavy lift. I thought, you know, at some point we would be able to do it and hoped we could. But listening in the caucus to concerns, and legitimate concerns from, you know, their perspectives, every member, I thought OK this is going to be tough," he said.
Thursday is likely the last day of the September's special session, Richmond said.
The General Assembly will likely pass the bills Thursday, concluding a special session that has been chaotic.
Announcing plans for a special session on Friday, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders was adamant the state's Freedom of Information Act was in needed of a major update, saying disclosures about her travels on a state police plane could harm her security. The Republican governor also said the state's sunshine law made government inefficient, revealed the state's legal strategy in lawsuits and allowed attorney's to game the state through recouping legal fees in lawsuits under the 1967 law.
But a bipartisan group of Arkansas that included every one from staunch progressives, tea party Republicans pushed back against Sanders's plan.