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Arkansas state Capitol news in brief: Bill to raise resource limit on SNAP benefits passes Senate

by Michael R. Wickline, Neal Earley, Will Langhorne | March 17, 2023 at 3:36 a.m.
Sen. Joshua Bryant (standing at lower left), R-Rogers, asks a question about Senate Bill 306, regarding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, during the Senate session Thursday at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Bill raises limit on resources for SNAP

The Arkansas Senate on Thursday approved a bill that would require the state Department of Human Services to request a broad-based categorical eligibility waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to exempt Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) applicants and enrollees from the federal resource limit.

The current resource limit in Arkansas is $2,250, or $3,500 if one household member is an individual with a disability or 60 or older, Department of Human Services spokesman Gavin Lesnick said afterward. There are 245,275 individual recipients of SNAP benefits and their average monthly household benefit is $321.12, he said.

Under Senate Bill 306 by Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, the asset limit under the program would be $6,000, upon obtaining the broad-based categorical eligibility waiver from the federal government, and the asset limit would be automatically adjusted for inflation on a biennial basis.

The Senate voted 21-9 to send the bill to the House for further consideration.

"This is not a left or right issue," Dismang said. "This is a do right issue."

The bill would help the working poor to save money and try to improve their lot in life, he said.

"Just because we are conservative doesn't mean we can't be compassionate," Dismang said.

Afterward, Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' spokeswoman Alexa Henning said the governor opposes SB306.

"We oppose expanding welfare and trapping more people in lifetime dependency that is paid for by the labor of hardworking taxpayers," she said.

-- Michael R. Wickline

High school course rule clears Senate

The Senate on Thursday approved a bill that would require a public high school student to earn one credit in a Department of Education-approved high school career and technical education course with at least 50% of the content being in computer science before the student graduates.

The Senate voted 27-2 to send Senate Bill 369 by Sen. Jim Dodson, R-Bentonville, to the House.

The bill would change the Computer Science Education Advancement Act of 2021 that required, starting with the entering ninth-grade class of 2022-23, a public high school student to earn one credit in a Department of Education-approved high school computer science course before the student graduates. The credit required may be earned in grades eight through 12 under state law.

The measure also would require the state Division of Career and Technical Education to review new and existing career and technical pathways to determine which courses within the career and technical pathways meet the criteria for weighted credit, and publish a list of approved career and technical pathways each year by Jan. 1.

-- Michael R. Wickline

Senate moves bill on petition names

A bill that would make it a crime to destroy signatures on a ballot petition cleared the Senate on Thursday.

The Senate voted 32-2 to send Senate Bill 377 by Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, to the House for further action. It would make it a misdemeanor to destroy a signature, other than your own, on a ballot petition.

Under the bill, paying a person or accepting money to destroy ballot signatures would be a Class A misdemeanor. The legislation also concerns people known as "blockers," who are hired by campaigns to convince people not to sign ballot petitions. The bill would require paid signature blockers to register with the state, just as paid canvassers are required to do.

-- Michael R. Wickline and Neal Earley

Human trafficking bills go to governor

The Senate on Thursday sent the governor two bills intended to address culpability, fines and reparations for crimes related to human trafficking.

The Senate voted 35-0 to approve House Bill 1459 and House Bill 1470, which are both sponsored by Rep. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren.

HB1459 would change the culpable mental state from "knowing" to "knows or should know" for crimes of trafficking of persons and patronizing a victim of human trafficking.

It also would raise and add extra fines for crimes related to human trafficking that courts would have to apply if a person guilty of the crimes had offered to pay, agreed to pay, or paid a fee to engage in sexual activities. Fine revenues under the bill would be split equally between the Safe Harbor Fund for Sexually Exploited Children and the Human Trafficking Victim Support Fund. The bill would allow the Human Trafficking Victim Support Fund to provide money to law enforcement agencies to train and educate on human trafficking.

HB1470 would allow any victim of human trafficking or any child who is a victim of a sex offense who does not cooperate with law enforcement officers to receive full reparations through the state Crime Victims Reparations Board. Under current law, the board may deny, withdraw or reduce reparations to victims who don't fully cooperate with officers.

-- Michael R. Wickline and Will Langhorne

FOIA training bill defeated in Senate

A bill that would require members of the governing body of each city, county and school board to attend an annual training session of at least an hour about certain areas of the Freedom of Information Act failed to escape the Senate on Thursday.

The Senate's 15-10 vote on Senate Bill 381 by Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, fell three votes short of the 18 votes required in the 35-member Senate for approval. Seven senators voted present, and three didn't vote on the bill.

-- Michael R. Wickline

Limit on school board service fails

A bill that would limit school board members to serving more than 16 consecutive years fell short of approval Thursday in the Arkansas Senate.

The Senate's 14-9 vote on Senate Bill 389 by Sen. Clint Penzo, R-Springdale, fell four votes short of the 18 votes required for approval in the 35-member Senate. Seven senators voted present, and five senators didn't vote on the bill. The Senate later expunged that vote to clear the way for another vote on the bill.

Penzo said the bill also would require school board elections to be held in the general election to increase voter turnout and no longer allow school board elections in the primary election.

-- Michael R. Wickline

Athletic-official protection OK'd

A bill intended to create criminal penalties for abusing athletic officials passed the Arkansas House on Thursday.

House Bill 1496 by Rep. RJ Hawk, R-Bryant, advanced on a vote of 75-4 with nine lawmakers voting present. The bill moves to the Senate for further action.

Hawk said the bill is needed to protect athletic officials at Little League, high school and collegiate levels. He pointed to the case of an official in Mountain Home who was hospitalized after being struck by a fan roughly a year ago.

Under the bill, a person who purposely "creates apprehension of imminent physical injury in an athletic contest official" would be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor.

Someone who causes physical injury to an official with the purpose of causing physical injury would be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor with a minimum fine of $2,500.

A person who causes serious physical injury to an official with the intent to cause physical injury would be guilty of a Class C felony.

The bill would apply a Class B felony if a person causes serious physical injury to an athletic official with the purpose of causing serious physical injury.

To ensure fans are aware of the penalties, Hawk said the Arkansas Activities Association would inform each of their member schools of the measure. Hawk said he had already begun discussing the bill in Saline County and reached out to tournament directors around the state.

Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, asked why people who abuse athletic officials should be subject to harsher penalties than people who abuse any other person. Hawk said Arkansas has a shortage of athletic officials and that adding protections could help retain and recruit officials.

-- Will Langhorne

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