In a session dominated largely by controversial bills centered around public education and the rights of LGBTQ Arkansans to exist in public life, the legislature did not do enough to address the needs of the disability community in Arkansas. There were some bright spots for the disability community; Act 783 expanded protections for people in inpatient facilities, Act 806 created minimum standards for quality of care in our psychiatric residential treatment facilities (PRTFs), and several acts passed which expanded the services which are reimbursable through Medicaid. Still, these bits of good law were few and far between.
The largest piece of legislation passed this session regarding the impact and page count was the Arkansas LEARNS Act. A sweeping piece of policy that touches on almost every aspect of education in the state, the LEARNS Act primarily expands the use of vouchers in the state, creating a windfall for charter and private schools while draining resources from public schools. Private schools are not required under the law to provide the same special education services and accommodations for students with disabilities as their public counterparts. In the worst-case scenario, this shifting of resources in the form of tax dollars to schools that are not held to the same standards as public schools has the potential to create a tiered educational system of haves and have-nots in Arkansas. In the best-case scenario, we are diverting tax dollars that could improve public schools and expand services. Instead, we are using those dollars to subsidize the private school tuition of families who do not need the assistance.
Another significant move by the legislature was the rapid passage of a bill that will expand the number of prison beds in the state and increase the minimum time which must be served by those convicted of crimes. No one is advocating that we should be more lenient on criminals or suggesting that Arkansas doesn’t need to do something to address crime. However, adding prison beds and extending sentences has been tried in other states and did not reduce crime or incarceration rates. In a state like Arkansas, where it is so easy for children, especially those with disabilities, to be trapped in the school-to-prison pipeline, we should be investing the hundreds of millions of dollars we are willing to spend on more prison beds into expanded services and community programs to provide individuals with tools and opportunities so that they can make better futures for themselves. Expanded supports and diversion programs have proven to work elsewhere. That is a better use of our tax dollars than a massive gift to the private prison industry.
The legislature also passed the latest in a series of tax cuts that will only benefit corporations, many out-of-state, and the wealthiest Arkansans. Every tax cut removes money from the state budget, which could expand services for people with disabilities, working families, and children. This was a costly session for Arkansas when combined with the expense of the LEARNS Act and prison expansion. The costs will only grow as these laws phase in over the next few years. There has been talk from the Governor and legislature members about eliminating the income tax in Arkansas. Eliminating the income tax would be a disaster for a state that already struggles to find money to pay for necessary services and infrastructure. Eliminating the income tax would most likely lead to sales tax increases, which would disproportionately impact the finances of poor and middle-class Arkansans.
In short, this session was largely about the legislature showing us what they prioritize. Far too often, the legislature ignored real needs and problems in this state in favor of running cookie-cutter legislation from out-of-state interest groups to score cheap points in a “culture war” that has no real effect on the day-to-day lives of the people who live here except to make things more difficult for already marginalized communities.
Instead of looking at the lack of funding to pay and retain care workers for people with disabilities and seniors in the state, they argued about drag shows. Instead of looking for ways to make voting easier and more accessible in a state with the lowest voter turnout in the nation, they spent their time passing legislation that directly contradicted the people’s will in the last election regarding constitutional amendments. Instead of creating and supporting opportunities for individuals with disabilities to find competitive and integrated employment in their communities, they passed an empty show of support for subminimum wage employment. Time and time again, the legislature ignored the needs of everyday Arkansans.
So what should you do about any of this going forward? Start by identifying the issues you care about, educating yourself on those issues, and then looking for other people who care about the same things and get organized. For its many faults, social media can be a valuable tool for finding like-minded individuals and spreading your message. Contact your legislators now and let them know what matters to you.
It will be too late if you wait until the next regular or special session of the legislature. Disability Rights Arkansas will continue to follow the issues and proposals with potential impact on the disability community in the state. Our website and social media will continue to update and spotlight information and involvement opportunities. If you are a person with a disability looking to get involved, the Arkansas Alliance for Disability Advocacy has programs that provide the tools you need to be a more effective advocate in your community.
It is important to remember that your legislator is there to represent you. You need to make sure that your voice is heard.