Members of the Arkansas Legislative Black Caucus met Monday night at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff’s STEM building to discuss the ups and downs of their recent legislative session.
Arkansas Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, chairs the Caucus and teamed with Rep. Kenneth Ferguson, D-Pine Bluff, to moderate the meeting. She said the Black Caucus’ purpose is to inform and educate about 350,000 Arkansans. This session was one of eight that are being held in or near all member districts in June and July to engage constituents on legislative issues related to the recent regular and special legislative sessions.
“We are holding these town hall meetings so that we can connect with our constituents, provide information as a follow up to the session and be available to ask and answer questions,” Vivian Flowers said.
The forum featured fellow lawmakers Rep. Charles Blake, D-Little Rock, Rep. Fredrick Love, D-Little Rock, Rep. Milton Nicks Jr., D-Marion, Rep. Fred Allen, D-Little Rock, Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, David Fielding, D-Magnolia, Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, Rep. George McGill, D-Fort Smith, Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, and Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado.
UAPB Chancellor Laurence Alexander welcomed the legislators to campus.
“We are delighted to have them here this evening to discuss the issues facing our state and to bring us up-to-date on a number of things that have occurred,” Alexander said.
Pine Bluff Police Chief Ivan Whitfield, president of the Pine Bluff branch of the NAACP, asked the legislators to allow men to discipline children and to differentiate discipline from abuse.
“I have 55 years in as being a black male walking on this earth,” Whitfield said, noting he has been in law enforcement for 34 years. “There are somethings I would like to say to you in my remarks. There is a need for somebody at this table to declare to your counterparts: We must define the difference between abuse and discipline. If we never do that - my brothers and sisters - the police chief, the assistant chief, and all the officers will always stay busy. … A man needs to be able to handle his household in a disciplinary form, not an abusive form.”
With respect to the NAACP, Vivian Flowers said the organization plays an important role. She credited Rizelle Aaron, president of the Arkansas NAACP state conference, for lobbying legislators in favor of the since-approved bill to separate the celebration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from that of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
Aaron also touted the NAACP as a civil rights organization that is not only for black people. He encouraged people to join the NAACP.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen this done in the state of Arkansas where we have a traveling crew of legislators who are taking their own time to come out and talk to us in our communities about the things that are important to us and we ought to be proud of them,” he said.
Legislators were asked to discuss a low point and a high point from the legislative session. Elliott called a low point that of continuing barriers toward people voting in conjunction with a proposed bill requiring them to produce a voter identification.
“Everyone thinks voter ID is not an issue until you talk to people for whom it is an issue,” Elliott said. “I always thought legislation was to fix a problem. Or what problem are you fixing? Or what convincing information do you have to show me there is a problem on the horizon? That’s the test I have toward voting ID.”
She called voting a civil right, whereas flying on an airplane or buying alcohol are privileges not guaranteed by the constitution. She mentioned the latter two examples to challenge opponents who claim that they require a photo identification.
Elliott cited a high point in children being allowed to be children and to be put in a position to learn.
“One of the major bills we passed is where you can no longer suspend kids from school unless they are a demonstrated danger to themselves or others,” Elliott said. “You can’t expel in [kindergarten] through five. … We are building their way to prison.”
Blake cited a success as passage of the Hope Act to allow the state to opt out of a federal law that mandates convicted criminals may receive benefits. He cited a failure as the bill that allows people to bring guns on university campuses if they have a concealed gun carry permit.
McGill cited a failure as any bill that furthers voter suppression and a success as a law that grants people who enlist in the Air National Guard to receive a free education.
Love cited a failure the removal of 60,000 Arkansans from the Affordable Care Act.
“We have the resources to take care of our constituents,” Love said. “It seemed like an assault on the poor.”
He cited the defeat on a bathroom bill as a success.
Allen cited a failure in the legislature not accomplishing goals and cited a success as a new bill to allow high school students to take the ACT without paying for it and another bill to allow screening for colorectal cancer.
Fielding discussed bills pertaining to child support and tort reform.
“I have a problem with putting a price on a person’s life,” Fielding said. “How do you set a value on a child’s life or any person’s life?”
Murdock cited legislation involving guns as a low. He said a high point was George McGill calming tensions during a heated debate regarding legislation about the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.
“My friend Representative George McGill went to the well and he calmed the well,” Murdock said. “He calmed the room. He did a wonderful job.”
Nicks cited the law to allow guns on college campuses because it removes the university’s authority as a failure. He cited a bill that prohibits minors from being executed as a success.
Stephanie Flowers cited having six pages serve in her district as a success and the new law allowing guns on university campuses as a failure.
“I have been emotionally effected by guns having family members who have gone to war and having a sister killed in college,” Stephanie Flowers said. “Those things I don’t think you can really appreciate until you’ve been there and experienced that. Since I’ve been back here in Arkansas in Pine Bluff going to a funeral home seeing young kids the same age I was when I lost my sister to gun violence on a college campus. [It] shows extreme shock and trauma.”
Kenneth Ferguson cited a success as the constituents service. He told people to contact his colleagues.
“That is one thing we can do that does not necessarily require passing a law,” he said. “I would encourage you to use your legislators.”
Vivian Flowers cited a success in Bill 2218: to Amend the Minority Business Economic Development Act and to Repeal Certain Contracting Goals.
“State agencies have a certain threshold where they can do small business contracts before they have to go to a more comprehensive, laborious process,” she said. “As long as you are registered with the state, that threshold of that small business contract is doubled. It incentivizes state agencies to do business with registered businesses.”
Vivian Flowers cited a low point as using the death penalty against convicted murderers and Arkansas being in the limelight.
She mentioned her colleague Rep. Rebecca Petty, whose 12-year-old daughter was abducted, raped, and murdered in 1999. Vivian Flowers credited Petty as an advocate for victims rights.
Trent Garner called it an honor to take part in the meeting.
“This is an opportunity for me to come out and see groups of people who I do not typically get to interact with on a day-to-day basis,” Garner, a Republican of El Dorado, said. “When you are running for election as a Republican, Democrat, Green Party, or Libertarian, it does not matter. We have different beliefs and ideas. Once I got elected, the only title I cared about was Arkansas.”
Garner said he does not mind if people yell at him because that is part of the job.
A Special Forces Green Beret veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan, Garner said he considered the Legislature’s success as supporting a bill that would grant military retirees a tax-exemption.
“Every state around us has this exemption already on the books,” Garner said. “It allows us to be competitive with them.”
Garner touted the Legislature’s passage of $50 million in tax breaks for low-income Arkansans.
He cited a low point as infrastructure being weak especially highways.
Other topics of conversation centered on the legalization of marijuana, the lottery scholarship, military veterans with respect to tax breaks, and people with disabilities.