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Senate committee doesn't vote on open records bill following hours of testimony

by Neal Earley | September 12, 2023 at 6:05 p.m.
Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, speaks during a meeting of the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs regarding new legislation about the state Freedom of Information Act at the Arkansas state Capitol on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)

The Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs opted against holding a vote on a contentious bill that would exempt more government records from the public under the state’s sunshine law.

After about five hours of public testimony, almost entirely against the bill to overhaul the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, the committee adjourned without a vote. Instead, the Senate may bypass the typical procedure for legislation, which usually is first approved out of committee, by having the Senate vote to extract the bill out of committee.

After the hearing, the Senate returned from long midday recess, convening without conducting any further business. Senate President Pro-Tempore Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, said he has the votes to pass the bill out of the chamber.

The bills in question, House Bill 1009 and Senate Bill 9, would allow government officials to shield government "records reflecting communications between the Governor or his or her staff and the secretary of a cabinet-level department,” from disclosure. The bills are identical companion bills sponsored by Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, and Hester, respectively.

Additionally, records "prepared by an attorney," representing a state official or agency that could be used in pending litigation or "anticipated in light of a plausible threat of litigation," could be withheld from the public.

The bill would exempt records "that reflect the planning or provision of security services provided" for constitutional officers and make it harder for those who file lawsuits for records under the Freedom of Information Act to recoup legal fees.

During a marathon hearing, Hester, who is the sponsor of Senate Bill 9, said the legislation was needed to prevent documents related to the governor’s security detail from becoming public and communications with cabinet secretaries to allow for the “free exchange of ideas.” 


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