Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Republicans in the Legislature on Tuesday backed off a widespread plan to restrict the public's access to records about Sanders' administration, but they said they will still seek limits on what can be released about the GOP governor's travel and security.
Republican lawmakers filed legislation exempting release of the travel and security records after an outcry over a proposal to significantly scale back the state's Freedom of Information Act. A wide range of critics that included media groups, transparency advocates and some conservatives had complained the initial legislation would erode the 1967 law protecting the public's access to government records and meetings.
“The security of our governor and her family should be the top priority for us,” Senate President Bart Hester said at a news conference at the state Capitol with Senate Republicans.
The legislation would allow the state to wall off details about the security provided Sanders and other constitutional officers, including who travels on the State Police airplane and the cost of individual trips. Sanders is seeking the limits as State Police is being sued by an attorney and blogger who has accused the agency of illegally withholding records about the governor's travel and security.
In calling for the restrictions, Sanders has cited death threats she has faced over the years, going back to her time as former President Donald Trump’s press secretary. Sanders said Tuesday she had asked the House and Senate to file legislation limited to her security, calling it “the most critical and important element of FOIA reform.”
“Nobody said changing the status quo would be easy but this is a great starting place for making our government safer and more effective,” she said in a statement.
The latest legislation removes other provisions that critics said would have shielded a host of records about state government agencies, including a measure that would have blocked the release of records “reflecting communications” between the governor’s office and her 15 appointed cabinet secretaries.
The newest bill also removes proposals facing opposition that would have created an attorney-client privilege exemption for state records and a change in how attorneys' fees are awarded in open records lawsuits.
Democrats said they still have concerns about the bill, but they were glad to see it narrowed down to security. Democratic Sen. Clarke Tucker said he wants to study the latest measure further but said any concerns he may have “pale in comparison” to the original legislation.
“My biggest concerns were just crippling government transparency in Arkansas, which the previous bill would have done,” Tucker said.
Robert Steinbuch, law professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's William H. Bowen School of law and an outspoken critic of the more widespread limits that had been proposed, called the new bill “a good result.”
“I’m thankful that we got to this result and I'm thankful for the people of Arkansas because this is the right outcome,” Steinbuch said.
The legislation filed Tuesday would require State Police to file quarterly reports that identifies by month and budget category expenses for the governor’s security. It would also make the exemptions on the governor's security retroactive to June 1, 2022.
The proposed open-records limits were among several items Sanders had placed on the agenda for a special session that began Monday. But they dominated lawmakers' attention, with a Senate panel hearing several hours of testimony over the more far-reaching exemptions.
Groups such as the Arkansas Press Association, the Arkansas chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a task force the Legislature formed in 2017 to review FOI measures had strongly opposed the previous legislation. The press association's president told lawmakers during the hearing the association would support the legislation if it was limited to “reasonable safety provisions.”
The previous legislation had also drawn opposition from groups on the right, including two county Republican Party committees.
The legislation was reworked as other items on the special session's agenda easily moved through the Legislature.
The Senate approved several of the measures, including a proposal to cut the state’s top individual income tax rate from 4.7% to 4.4% and the top corporate rate from 5.1% to 4.8%. The proposal, which now heads to the House, also includes a one-time, nonrefundable tax credit of up to $150 for individuals and $300 for married couples making less than $90,000.