New laws on social issues, criminal justice and labor set to go into effect in Arkansas

Laws that allow lawsuits against doctors who provide gender-affirming care to minors, impose age-verification requirements for websites displaying pornography, and revise child labor statutes will go into effect Tuesday.

Starting Tuesday, state laws also will prohibit foreign parties from acquiring any interest in Arkansas agricultural land, bar public schools and universities from discriminating against hair types, and restrict state and local governments from contracting with companies that boycott certain industries.

These laws, and scores of others, are set to take effect 91 days after May 1 — the day the Legislature adjourned its regular session. Tuesday is the effective date for all laws that do not contain an emergency clause allowing them to be immediately implemented, do not include a specific effective date or have not been blocked by a judge.

So far, at least four of the 890 acts enacted by the Republican-dominated General Assembly and GOP Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders have been challenged in lawsuits.

Some of the most controversial bills of the session dealt with hot-button social issues including transgender rights and access to books or other material deemed inappropriate for children.

Act 372, by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, aims to create an offense for “furnishing a harmful item to a minor” and strikes a defense for librarians against criminal prosecution under state obscenity laws.

On Saturday, a federal judge in Fayetteville issued an order blocking two provisions of the law from taking effect.

The order came in a lawsuit filed by 17 plaintiffs, including the American Library Association and the Central Arkansas Library System.

Supporters of the act said it is needed to protect children from obscene material and that more transparency is needed when it comes to decisions made by libraries.

Critics said the act could expose librarians to criminal liability, lead to children losing access to important pieces of literature and result in libraries and local elected officials being inundated by objections to books.

While a 2021 law that aims to ban gender transition procedures for minors has been struck down by a federal judge, an act enacted this year will allow a person injured by one of these procedures as a minor to sue the health professional who provided it.

Act 274, by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, permits an injured minor or a representative for the minor to bring a lawsuit no later than 15 years after the minor turns 18 or would have turned 18 if the minor dies before turning 18. The current statute of limitations for most medical malpractice cases in Arkansas is two years.

Supporters of the act have questioned the ability of minors to consent to procedures covered by the act and noted the legislation does not outlaw “gender transition procedures” but provides legal recourse for those who receive the procedures.

Opponents contend it would unfairly limit treatments for transgender people, especially those with mental illness, and could violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. Critics have also said gender transition surgery is not performed on children in Arkansas and that state code already includes medical malpractice laws.

Act 542, also known as the Given Name Act, requires a parent or guardian to give written permission before a public school employee may address students by their preferred pronoun or name. The law, sponsored by freshman Rep. Wayne Long, R-Bradford, bars teachers and other school officials from using a pronoun that is “inconsistent with the unemancipated minor’s or student’s biological sex” without such permission.

The law also prohibits school officials from addressing a student by a name other than the one on their birth certificate, but exempts use of a “derivative” name, such as “Bob” for “Robert.”

Long said the law is meant to protect the religious liberty of teachers who may object to using a student’s preferred name or pronoun. However, opponents including the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas say it, like several other bills passed during the session, discriminates against transgender Arkansans.

Like Long’s legislation on pronouns, Act 317 by Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, also sought to create limits around biological sex inside public schools with her bill focused on bathrooms. The law, which comes into effect on Tuesday, will restrict transgender people from using the bathroom of their preference.

Under the new law, public schools will be required to ban people from using a bathroom that does not correspond with the sex listed on their birth certificate. The law applies to multiple-occupancy restrooms, locker rooms and places where people “may be in various stages of undress.”

Act 619 makes it a crime for adults to knowingly enter or remain in a bathroom of the opposite sex to arouse or gratify a sexual desire while knowing a child is present. The act’s sponsor, Sen. John Payton, R-Wilburn, has said the legislation is intended to protect children and has maintained it is not intended to target transgender people.

The act applies to “public changing facilities,” defined as public or private facilities open to the public and intended to be used by people who may be undressed. These facilities include “without limitation a restroom, bathroom, locker room, or shower room,” according to the act.

Arkansas will join a growing number of states on Tuesday with laws that require pornography websites to verify that users are at least 18 years old.

Under Act 612, by Sen. Tyler Dees, R-Siloam Springs, commercial entities will have to use a reasonable age verification method before allowing users to access a website where more than a third of the material is deemed “harmful to minors.” Website operators can use digitized ID cards, a government-issued ID or any commercially reasonable age verification method “that holds an Identity Assurance Level 2.”

The law contains a section that will bar commercial entities or third-party vendors from retaining any identifying information used to verify the age of the user.

While another law, Act 261, will require the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration to offer drivers digitized licenses, the agency is not required to provide these licenses before February 2025.

Dees said age restrictions are needed to protect children who often have access to digital devices at young ages.

Other states including Louisiana, Mississippi and Utah have passed or enacted similar legislation. An adult entertainment group has challenged the Louisiana law in federal court, claiming it is vague and violates constitutional protections on freedom of expression and due process, according to The Associated Press.

Dees said on Friday he was not aware of any lawsuits filed against his act.

New restrictions on adult-oriented performances will also take effect this week. Act 131, by Stubblefield, will bar these performances from taking place on public property, admitting minors or being funded in part or in whole by public funds.

The act defines an adult-oriented performance as any performance intended to appeal to prurient interest featuring a nude or semi-nude person. These performances may also include the purposeful exposure of a “specific anatomical area” or “prosthetic genitalia or breasts” or feature a “specific sexual activity.”

Act 310, sponsored by Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, will require the secretary of state to permit and arrange the placement on the state Capitol grounds of a suitable monument commemorating “unborn children aborted” after the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found state laws banning abortions were unconstitutional. The court reversed itself last year, clearing the way for abortion bans in Arkansas and other states.

Under Act 310, the Capitol Arts and Grounds Commission will oversee the selection of the artist and design of the monument “with input from pro-life groups in Arkansas,” and the secretary of state will have final approval of these selections before any construction is started. The secretary of state will be required to arrange for the construction, placement and dedication of the monument on the state Capitol grounds by private entities at no expense to the state.

Hammer said Wednesday that if a proposed design of the monument that is offered is accepted, he has a monument company willing to donate the monument.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Act 777 intends to clear up yearslong confusion over whether Arkansas is a permitless-carry state by specifying that a license is not required to carry a concealed handgun in Arkansas.

The new law indicates Arkansas only offers concealed-carry licenses to provide residents with the certification they need to carry concealed handguns in states where permits are required.

Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, sponsored the act and has said it is not intended to apply to “enhanced” concealed-carry licenses, which gun owners may obtain to carry handguns on public university grounds and in other sensitive areas. Some legal experts, however, have said the act could be interpreted as applying to these licenses, since statutes concerning “enhanced” concealed-carry licenses are included in the subchapter amended by the bill.

The first section of the Protect Arkansas Act, an expansive criminal justice law backed by Sanders, is set to go into effect on Tuesday. The section requires the creation of the Legislative Recidivism Reduction Task Force, a 19-member panel responsible for studying and recommending solutions to Arkansas’ high rate of recidivism.

The task force — which includes members appointed by the governor, speaker of the House, president pro tempore of the Senate and other officials — is required to submit a preliminary report of its findings to the Legislature, governor and chief justice of the state Supreme Court by Dec. 31 and a final report by Dec. 1, 2024.

The task force will expire at the end of 2024.

The bulk of the Protect Arkansas Act, or Act 659, will become effective in 2024 and 2025. The new law primarily aims to overhaul the state’s parole system and will require people convicted of violent felonies to serve the majority, if not the entirety, of their sentences in prison.

Act 889 requiring state officials to create an app displaying information on parolees and state inmates who are being considered for parole will go into effect this week.

The “Safe Arkansas App” will include details such as the names, photographs and offenses of parolees and inmates. While supporters say the app will allow Arkansans to access information that is already publicly available but not easily accessible, opponents contend it could make it harder for formerly incarcerated people to reintegrate into communities.

Several new laws create criminal charges or enhance existing punishments for offenses. In an attempt to curb distracted driving, Ashton’s and Abbie’s Law creates a criminal penalty for drivers who cause serious physical injury or death while using wireless telecommunications devices.

Under Act 445, which was named for two victims of distracted driving accidents, a person could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. A court also could order the person to perform up to 100 hours of public work service.

As part of a broader effort to address the spread of fentanyl in Arkansas, Act 739, by Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, establishes felony penalties for anyone convicted of knowingly exposing another person to fentanyl.

The act includes penalty enhancements if the person who is exposed to fentanyl is a first responder or an employee of a correctional facility.

ALCOHOL

As part of the Natural State Initiative, the tourism push led by first gentleman Bryan Sanders, Act 655, by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, will allow state parks to sell alcohol or contract with a third party to do so, without needing approval from the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division. State parks instead can seek authority from the secretary of the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.

Act 747, by Rep. Mark Perry, D-Jacksonville, allows the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division to issue permits to distillers in dry counties if they sell exclusively to wholesalers. The law also allows Alcoholic Beverage Control to issue permits to small farm wineries in dry counties.

LABOR & ENVIRONMENT

Act 195 repeals a requirement that those under the age of 16 have to seek permission from the Division of Labor to be able to work.

The law, dubbed the Youth Hiring Act of 2023, was sponsored by Rep. Rebecca Burkes, R-Lowell, with the backing of the governor, to remove what they saw as unnecessary regulation. Previously, to get hired, anyone under 16 would need written permission from a parent or guardian, proof of age and description of the proposed work schedule.

During discussions over work permits for children, Sen. Clint Penzo, R-Springdale, said he realized that while state code includes civil penalties for people who violate child labor laws, it does not include criminal ones.

To strengthen the law, Penzo sponsored Act 687, which creates misdemeanor penalties for employers who knowingly violate child labor laws. Knowingly violating a labor law that results in serious physical injury to or death of a child would become a felony for an employer convicted of the crime more than once.

The act also stiffens the civil penalties employers could face for violations.

Act 411, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, will require the state treasurer and state and local government entities to divest certain investments with financial services providers on a list maintained by the state treasurer due to the use of environmental, social justice or governance-related metrics.

The law will create an ESG oversight committee to compile a list of financial service providers that discriminate against energy, fossil fuel, firearms or ammunition companies or otherwise refuse to deal based on environmental, social justice and other governance-related factors.

The state treasurer will be required to maintain a list of financial service providers as determined by the ESG oversight committee on the state treasurer’s website under the law.

Supporters of the measure contended the bill is aimed at making sure the state does not invest funds with financial service providers that discriminate against the energy, fossil fuel, ammunition and firearms industries; opponents counter that they worry it could cost state government’s retirement systems millions of dollars.

Act 611, sponsored by Sen. Ricky Hill, R-Cabot, will bar state and local governments from contracting with a company that boycotts energy, fossil fuel, firearms and ammunition industries.

Under the law, state and local governments will be prohibited from entering into a contract with a company to acquire or dispose of services, supplies, information technology or construction unless the contract includes a written certification that the person or company is not currently engaged in and agrees for the duration of the contract not to engage in a boycott of energy, fossil fuel, firearms and ammunition industries. State and local governments also will be barred from engaging in a boycott of these industries.

Act 611 will not apply to a company that fails to meet these requirements, but offers to provide the goods and services for at least 20% less than the lowest certifying business, or to contracts with a total potential value of less than $75,000. Financial service providers would be exempt under the bill.

OTHER

Act 766, sponsored by Hammer, comes in reaction to controversy surrounding the contentious campaign around a proposed constitutional amendment to revoke the gaming license for a planned casino in Pope County. The law makes it a Class A misdemeanor to destroy a signature, other than your own, on a petition. The law also requires “blockers,” or people paid by campaigns to convince people to not sign petitions, to register with the state, similar to the requirements for paid canvassers.

Act 636, sponsored by Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, bans certain kinds of foreign groups from owning a controlling stake in agricultural land in Arkansas. Under the new law, a “prohibited foreign-party-controlled business,” will be barred from having more than a 50% stake in agriculture land in the state.

A foreign party means a “corporation, company, association, firm, partnership, society, joint-stock company, trust, estate or other legal entity whose controlling interest is owned by a prohibited foreign party.” The law only applies to citizens of a country subject to the federal International Traffic in Arms Regulations, who will have two years to divest their ownership stake in Arkansas land.

The law also creates the Office of Agricultural Intelligence, which will “collect and analyze information” on foreign parties investing in agricultural land in the state.

Act 514, also known as the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act, bars public school officials and teachers from discriminating against students based on their “natural, protective, or cultural hairstyle.” State-supported institutions of higher education also will also be prohibited from discriminating based on hairstyles.

Under the act, sponsored by Rep. Jamie Scott, D-North Little Rock, “natural, protective, or cultural hairstyle” includes “without limitation afros, dreadlocks, twists, locs, braids, cornrow braids, Bantu knots, curls, and hair styled to protect hair texture or for cultural significance.”

At least 22 states have enacted laws to prevent discrimination based on hairstyles, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

With esports on the rise, the Legislature enacted Act 439 to clarify that video game tournaments are not gambling. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, exempts esports tournaments, which may offer cash prizes to the winners, from the state’s laws regulating gambling. However, earnings from esports tournaments are still subject to the state’s income tax law.

Information for this article was contributed by Michael R. Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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