Legislator knows best

The Arkansas Legislature consists of 35 senators and 100 representatives, each chosen by a plurality of the voters in his or her district. People elect certain legislators based on their perceived ability to steer government in a certain direction and because they subscribe to the same ideas. Those legislators are paid the tax dollars of their constituents, and are therefore beholden to them. Lawmakers are expected to represent their constituents' interests.

Ideally, those legislators will go to Little Rock and bust their hump on behalf of their constituents. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes, our lawmakers head to the capitol only to write laws that serve their own interest, their party’s interest or the interest of their donors.

For some examples of boneheaded laws that have absolutely no practical application, look no further than the current legislative session of the 91st General Assembly. When legislators went home Wednesday afternoon, a total of 1,060 bills had been filed since filing began in November. For a state with a Republican super majority, that’s far from conservative.

Just go down that list and you will find a plethora of proposed laws that have absolutely no constructive value and meet no real need.

Take, for instance, the bill that was filed this week to address transgender bathroom access.  As of yesterday, the bill consisted of one sentence: “The purpose of this act concerns gender identity and bathroom privileges.” The bill’s sponsor told reporters that he didn’t want to make the details of the legislation public just yet.

For whatever reason, some legislators believe the issue of gender identity and bathrooms is one of the most important of our time. The rest of the civilized world would disagree. According to fact checkers, most of the anecdotal accounts used to justify such bills are false. To date, there have been no credible reports of incidents in Arkansas that would demonstrate a need for the legislation.

Even Gov. Asa Hutchinson has spoken out against the proposed law, saying it was unnecessary and potentially harmful. North Carolina’s state legislator enacted a similar law two years ago. By the end of 2016, the state had lost more than $600 million in business as a result. Sometimes legislating outside of your constituents’ interests can be expensive.

Another bill, proposed last week, would prevent a foreign law from violating an Arkansan’s constitutional rights. In case you were wondering, that’s already illegal. That’s what they’re called constitutional rights.

Thankfully, neither bill has gone anywhere, yet. But some have. One such bill, directed at limiting sex-selected abortions, was passed by the House just this week. I support efforts to reduce the number of abortions performed in Arkansas, but this law does no such thing. According to its sponsor, the bill would require doctors to ask women, prior to an abortion, if she knew the sex of the baby. If she doesn’t, they proceed. If she does, doctors are required to inform her that sex-selected abortions are illegal in the state of Arkansas.

And that’s it. Thanks for the tip, doc.

That bill, like many others, has no practical application in preventing an abortion. It’s just a way for the representative who wrote it – Rep. Charlie Collins of Fayetteville – to get his name on a piece of legislation. A merit badge. A legislative participation trophy.

Meanwhile, precious time is being wasted in the legislature. There has, however, been enough time to discuss bills to name the official state dinosaur and create a Second Amendment appreciation weekend. Did I mention state revenue projections are falling short by nearly $60 million?

Our friend Rep. Collins is also the author and primary sponsor of another ill-advised bill that was advanced by a Senate committee on Wednesday, two weeks after receiving the overwhelming support of the House.

Collins’s bill would require state colleges and universities to allow faculty and staff members to carry guns on campus. The existing law allows schools to opt out of the law. After that law, which was also sponsored by Collins, passed in 2013, literally every single college and university in the state opted out. When school administrators had the opportunity to address lawmakers, they urged them to vote the measure down. State law enforcement agencies, including the Arkansas Sheriff’s Association, also spoke out against the bill, saying it would make campuses more dangerous and police work more difficult.

Instead, legislators ignored every single piece of advice from the those most affected bill and advanced it to the full Senate. Committee members even voted down an amendment that would require faculty members to take a few hours of active-shooter training, a provision even Gov. Asa Hutchinson insisted on. Colleagues asked Collins: “Why aren’t you listening to anybody?”

And that’s a great question. Because at times it seems like lawmakers are not listening to anybody, especially the people who voted them into office.

Last month, after having proposed legislation to limit the scope of medical marijuana in the state, Sen. Jason Rapert of Conway filed a bill that would delay implementation altogether until marijuana was made legal federally. Smoking is bad, Rapert told colleagues and reports, and marijuana is illegal in the United States. Though 28 other states have legalized the plant for at least medicinal use without federal repercussions, Rapert said he could not ignore his oath of office and violate federal law. He also told reporters that it was something his constituents wanted.

But that was a lie. Rapert’s district, Senate district 35, is comprised primarily of Faulkner County. In November, the majority of Faulkner County voters cast ballots in support of medical marijuana. In fact, nearly 10,000 more people voted for medical marijuana than supported Rapert in any of his elections. So, it’d be safe to assume that Rapert’s constituents support medical marijuana more than they support his own candidacy.

Instead of taking his constituents’ desires into consideration, Rapert acted in his own, self-righteous interest. Or, perhaps, his bill was in the interest of his donors.

Despite having spoken out against smoking, since 2012, Rapert has taken thousands of dollars from major tobacco companies and lobbyists like Phillip Morris and Altria. He’s also taken thousands from the pharmaceutical lobby, including Pfizer and PhRMA.

And despite having cited federal law and his oath of office in defending the obstructive bill, Rapert spent Valentine’s Day advocating for legislation that would outlaw same-sex marriage, an issue that has been settled at the federal level.

According to the most recent Arkansas Poll, the majority of Arkansans want no change in state gun laws. That includes allowing professors to tote without adequate training. They don’t want self righteous blowhards standing in the way of medical marijuana. And it’s probably safe to assume they don’t want their lawmakers running up expense payments and wasting tax dollars arguing over redundant legislation and laws that have absolutely no practical application, creating solutions for problems that don’t even exist.

Sometimes, it seems our legislators lose sight of why they were sent to Little Rock. It's time we remind them.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Caleb Talley is a member of the Times-Herald news staff. He may be contacted at 870-633-3130 or by email at newsroom@thnews.com.)