Even half of the bill’s official title is a mouthful: “Creating A Sentence Enhancement For Certain Offenses Committed Against A Person Due to the Person’s Attributes …”
But Senate Bill 3, commonly known as the “hate crimes bill,” boils down to a crucial chance to burnish Arkansas’ image and remove a hurdle to recruiting companies and workers, government officials and business leaders say.
Conservative resistance has risen to stall the bill in committee in the current session of the Arkansas General Assembly, just as it has for nearly two decades. Nevertheless, Gov. Asa Hutchinson and his administration are pushing it vigorously.
Arkansas is one of only three states lacking enhanced penalties for crimes targeting people for their characteristics, including race, religion and sexual orientation. The others, South Carolina and Wyoming, are both considering hate crimes bills. “It’s something we need here in our state, and a lot of companies and businesses out there support it,” Arkansas Commerce Secretary Mike Preston told Arkansas Business, noting that consumer brands are increasingly wary of being associated with places and people viewed as backward on social issues.
“Arkansas itself is a consumer brand, and I go out to sell Arkansas around the country and the world every day,” Preston added.
“If there’s something out there that’s going to damage our brand, name and reputation, that will make it harder to sell Arkansas as a location or destination for companies or workers. So we definitely need hate crimes legislation to pass here.”
20% More Jail Time
For a time prospects looked good for the bill, which would impose up to 20% more prison time in cases where victims were singled out for their characteristics. Hutchinson, a popular Republican, is its biggest fan, and chambers of commerce, faith-based groups and companies like Walmart of Bentonville and Tyson Foods of Springdale all offered support. eeeeee(See supportive commentary from IBM, It’s Time for Arkansas to Pass Hate Crimes Law.)
However, conservative forces have aligned against the bill in the current session of the GOP-dominated General Assembly, and it is now stuck in the Judiciary committees of the state House and Senate. Democratic support is widespread, but Republicans have raised familiar objections to LGBT protections, and to the idea of setting up a “special class” of victims.
The governor, who prosecuted white supremacists in Arkansas as a young U.S. attorney in the 1980s, has long supported enhanced sentencing for hate crimes. Similar proposals have failed in Arkansas over the years, but Hutchinson made the issue a personal cause after a mass shooting at a Texas Walmart in 2019 that federal authorities pursued as a hate crime.
In 1985, Hutchinson got a 20-year racketeering sentence against Aryan Nations associate Jim Ellison, the leader of an Ozark Mountains white supremacist group called the Covenant, the Sword & the Arm of the Lord. “I’d loved to have had 25 years in there with a good enhancement for a hate crime,” the governor told reporters last year.
State tourism officials and marketing pros think enacting hate crimes legislation could help Arkansas’ image with tourists and workers newly allowed to work from home, regardless of where home is. Adding the law “would certainly impact our ability to improve tourism,” Preston said. And Stacy Hurst, director of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism, called the legislation “consistent with the brand and image we promote, that Arkansas is a warm and welcoming state.”
Tourists often remark on Arkansans’ hospitality and favorable business climate, Hurst told Arkansas Business, something she said she wants “all visitors” to safely enjoy.
“For several years we’ve worked to reach a broader group of potential visitors through targeted efforts including devoting a portion of our tourism marketing budget specifically to diversity outreach,” Hurst said. “We’ll continue those efforts. Location image does factor into travel decisions.”
Esperanza Massana-Crane, the new director of the state Division of Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprise, said the state’s image “absolutely” plays a key role in economic development, and she praised Hutchinson’s leadership.
She and Hurst both recalled the governor’s insistence that the state cannot “tolerate violence against anyone because of race, their religion or because of who they are.”
“Members of the Arkansas Economic Development Council also expressed their support … by passing a resolution that affirms that the absence of hate crime legislation could hinder the recruitment of companies to Arkansas,” Massana-Crane said, “and could put the state at a particular competitive disadvantage if Arkansas became the only state without such legislation.”
Pam Jones, a Little Rock marketing professional with tourism experience and now CEO of Culturally Connected Communications, said businesses, faith groups and hospitality leaders all favor enhanced hate crime penalties.
“Arkansas is a truly diverse state … and with businesses fighting to rebound from the pandemic, elected officials should unequivocally support efforts to remove obstacles,” Jones said last week. “Passage of the hate crime legislation will prove to companies, tourists, workers and families that Arkansas is ready to support everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion or physical ability.”
‘You’re Still Free to Hate’
Zack Baker, executive director of Central Arkansas Pride, said the state’s reluctance to enact a hate crimes bill isn’t the only red flag progressive-minded people and enterprises see when they consider Arkansas. The issue goes hand in hand with legislative measures like state Sen. Bob Ballinger’s “stand your ground” bill authorizing use of weapons in self-defense and with measures that would restrict classroom instruction on historical racism.
“Stand your ground” died in a House committee last week, and the other proposals hit procedural roadblocks and appear unlikely to pass. But taken together, they give the state a black mark, Baker said.
“We see a lot of LGBTQ people leaving the state, not just because of this issue but for a number of reasons,” Baker said. “So if the goal is to attract more businesses and workers, we have to remember that tech companies and others want to locate in places with a diverse group of residents and open-minded people. Being one of just three states not to have this kind of legislation sends exactly the wrong signal.”
The law would address actions, not beliefs, he said. If it passes, he said, “you’re still free to hate; you’re just not able to act on that hate by victimizing people.”
Hutchinson and his nephew, state Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, have refused to compromise on the sexual orientation elements, and prospects for passage remain murky, at best.
One opponent, Sen. Jimmy Hickey of Texarkana, told the Associated Press last month that he doubts the legislation will pass. “If you’re going to do it for one group of people, why wouldn’t you do it for another?” he asked. Late last year, Jerry Cox of the Family Council spoke out against it. “Unfortunately, this law creates more inequality by favoring special categories of people based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and other characteristics,” said Cox, whose Little Rock-based group’s mission is to promote traditional family values and biblical teachings.
The governor said he’s continuing to work with lawmakers on the bill’s language, and he still thinks the legislation has a chance. “I am hopeful that we can all come together and pass a significant hate crime bill this year,” Hutchinson said in a statement. “We continue to work on correct bill language with ongoing conversations with legislators.”
The governor noted support ranging from “the business community to the faith-based community,” and is counting on grassroots support to help the idea gain traction. “I can’t speculate as to what damage it will do if it is not passed.”
Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr., who is Black, said the city has charted a path by establishing a hate crimes ordinance, the first of its kind among Arkansas cities.
“As an associate pastor at my church, I’ve signed onto a letter to lawmakers in support of the hate crimes legislation,” the mayor said. “Morally it’s the right thing to do.”
Preston Clegg, pastor of Second Baptist Church in downtown Little Rock, agreed.
“Sometimes we sell our souls in the name of business,” Clegg said. “But this is a rare instance when we’re selling both our souls and our business [prospects] in the name of fear.”