House panel, Arkansas Senate approve bill to modify open records law

Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, during a meeting of the House State Agencies Committee on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2023. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Tommy Metthe)

The Arkansas Senate and the House State Agencies Committee approved bills Wednesday to exempt records related to the governor’s security detail from disclosure.

The legislation is a scaled down version of what Gov. Sarah Huckaee Sanders and Senate President Pro Tempore Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, had proposed earlier this week.

The Senate approved the bill in a 29-2 vote, with Democrats Greg Leding of Fayetteville and Fred Love of Mabelvale voting no.

Unlike the previous bill to modify the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, the state’s open records and meeting laws, Senate Bill 10 would require exempting only documents related to the governor's Arkansas State Police detail and "records that reflect the planning or provision of security services provided" to constitutional officers and judges. The bill would be retroactive to June 1, 2022.

[Get the latest coverage of the Arkansas Legislature at nwaonline.com/legislature/]

The bill had just passed out of committee minutes before the Senate took the floor Wednesday morning. The Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs, which held a five-hour hearing on a previous bill aimed at overhauling the Freedom of Information Act, held a brief hearing Wednesday as some of the people who spoke against the previous bills changed their positions after seeing the scaled-down version.

However, not everyone was on board. Fort Smith attorney and transparency advocate Joey McCutchen took issue with the bill's retroactive clause.

“I think we need to do our business in complete sunshine, no darkness,” McCutchen said. “We don’t even need to have the appearance of that.”

Arkansas Inspector General Allison Bragg said the bill needed to be retroactive as security plans for Sanders, whose immediate family includes five protectees, began months before the Republican governor won the election in November.

A previous bill Sanders had backed also would have limited communications between the governor's staff and cabinet secretaries, made it harder for those who file suit under it to recover legal fees, and to prevent records "prepared by an attorney" representing a state official or agency that could be used in pending litigation.

Sanders and Republican lawmakers backed off the proposal after intense pushback from members of the public.