Senate approves ban on localities' anti-bias laws

Vote sends SB202 to House

Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, right, talks with Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, in the Senate at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Monday, Feb. 9, 2015. The Senate approved a bill by Hester to prohibit cities and counties from enacting ordinances that prohibit discrimination on a basis not contained in state law. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, right, talks with Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, in the Senate at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Monday, Feb. 9, 2015. The Senate approved a bill by Hester to prohibit cities and counties from enacting ordinances that prohibit discrimination on a basis not contained in state law. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

The Arkansas Senate on Monday handily approved legislation that would prevent cities and counties from passing anti-discrimination laws.

The 24-8 vote sent Senate Bill 202, sponsored by Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, to the state House of Representatives. The bill was referred to the House Committee on City, County and Local Affairs late Monday afternoon.

Twenty-one of the Senate's 23 Republicans supported the legislation. Sens. Alan Clark of Lonsdale and Jake Files of Fort Smith didn't cast votes on the bill.

Democratic Sens. Bruce Maloch of Magnolia, Bobby Pierce of Sheridan and Larry Teague of Nashville voted for the measure, while the eight other Senate Democrats voted against it.

Hester said he wants to make sure that cities, counties and other political subdivisions "do not create their own civil-rights ordinances."

"This is not about local control or state control," Hester said after Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, questioned why the Legislature would interfere.

"This is about standardizing the uniformity of the laws that are as important as civil rights across the state of Arkansas," Hester said.

In August, the Fayetteville City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identification or sexual identification. Fayetteville voters repealed the measure on Dec. 9.

Officials have been considering a similar ordinance in Eureka Springs.

Hester's bill was introduced Feb. 2 and gained Senate approval in just one week.

SB202 would prohibit a city, county or "other political subdivision of the state" from adopting or enforcing an ordinance, resolution, rule or policy that "creates a protected classification or prohibits discrimination on a basis not contained in state law."

But that prohibition "does not apply to a rule or policy that pertains only to the employees of a county, municipality or other political subdivision" under SB202.

SB202 says its purpose "is to improve intrastate commerce by ensuring that businesses, organizations, and employers doing business in the state are subject to uniform nondiscrimination laws and obligations."

But its foes counter that the bill would be bad for business and send the wrong message to private industry considering locating in Arkansas.

After the Senate approved SB202, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said that "I was opposed to the Fayetteville ordinance."

"I am concerned anytime the state requires a municipality to give up local control. There are some issues that justify a statewide policy. One of those is assuring that our business community can operate consistently across the state. For that reason, I would prefer to see the legislative process work before I make a final determination about the proposed legislation," the Republican from Rogers said in a written statement.

Earlier, Senate Democratic Leader Keith Ingram of West Memphis, a former mayor, said the state has more than 500 cities and 75 counties and Hester is rushing to pass legislation based on one incident "to try pre-exempt something that there is system for that worked.

"This is a strange session in that ... if Washington passed something like this and passed it down to this state, we would scream about federal overreach," Ingram told senators. "That is exactly what we are turning around and doing as a legislative body, and there are so many unintended consequences to this piece of legislation it could be a Keep Lawyers [Employed] bill."

For example, Ingram said attorneys for Little Rock worry that SB202 could get the city sued because Little Rock gives preferences to local and state businesses when it awards contracts.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, told senators that "discrimination in every form is wrong," but defended the bill.

"I think we are perfectly within our rights to say we are not going to have conflicting laws throughout the state of Arkansas," he said. "If we do not do something, we could have a mishmash of laws conflict all over the state and courts would be deciding which one takes precedence."

Democratic Sen. Chesterfield said that "we need to be very careful" about the messages that the state sends if Arkansas wants to continue to attract private industry to the state.

"I do believe this is bad for business," she said, referring to Hester's bill.

Afterward, Hester said he's not sure when a House committee will consider SB202, which is sponsored in the House by Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville.

Hester said the objections raised Monday won't be ignored.

"Any real concerns that come up [about SB202] we want to look at those, ponder them, consider them and have attorneys look at them," Hester said.

"If there needs to be an amendment, we would make it on the House end," he said. "Right now, I don't think it is necessary. But with all the concerns that were brought up [Monday], we are certainly going to meet together.

"We want good legislation, not just passed legislation," Hester said.

Metro on 02/10/2015