Nonpartisan prosecuting attorney elections bill passes Senate


LITTLE ROCK — Legislation to make prosecuting attorney elections in Arkansas nonpartisan and cut off state-issued grants to Planned Parenthood passed the Senate on Tuesday.

The House approved legislation that would create the possibility that someone convicted of capital murder as a juvenile would not spend the rest of his life in prison.

Under House Bill 1855 by Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, prosecutor elections also would be moved from November to the May primary like nonpartisan judicial elections. The runoffs would be in November.

“I do not think that the prosecuting attorney should be partisan,” Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, said while presenting the bill in the Senate.

Irvin said both major parties in the state are equally opposed to the measure.

“The time for this is right,” she said.

Some lawmakers worried that moving the nonpartisan prosecuting attorney elections to May might indirectly make them more partisan because generally voter turnout is lower then, with the more politically active casting ballots. Overall voter turnout is much higher in November.

“This does give me some pause,” said Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock. Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, said moving the prosecutor’s race to May would “run the risk of diminishing the election.”

Sen. David Burnett, D-Osceola, a former prosecutor and circuit judge, said he supported the bill.

“Prosecuting attorneys have a tremendous amount of discretion and their decisions do not need to be based on a political party,” Burnett said.

Sen. Robert Thompson, D-Paragould, agreed, saying “political politics doesn’t have a role in the courtroom.”

The bill passed 20-13 and goes to the governor.

The Senate also passed, 19-11, SB 818 by Rep. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, which would prohibit state-issued grants to an organization or agency that perform abortions or makes abortion referrals.

The bill now goes to the House.

Planned Parenthood, which funds abortions and provides community assistance in a number of other areas, receives about $70,000 annually in federal grants awarded through the state Department of Health to provide educational programs on sexually transmitted disease prevention in some Little Rock schools.

Stubblefield said his bill would bar state grants to any entity that performs abortions or provides abortion referrals, contracts with a person or entity that performs abortions or abortion referrals, or is an affiliate of a person or entity that performs abortions or referrals.

Critics of the bill said it was aimed at a single organization and targeted a grant that is unrelated to abortion, but supporters said a number of agencies could provide the same HIV/STD prevention services but do not perform abortions or make abortion referrals.

The Senate also approved House Bill 2121 by Rep. Fonda Hawthorne, D-De Queen, which would require health benefit plans in Arkansas to provide for corrective surgery and treatment for craniofacial anomaly, a disorder that primarily affects the bones in the head and face.

In response to a question, Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, who presenting the bill the Senate, acknowledged approval of the legislation would probably cause insurance rates to rise slightly.

The bill passed 28-1 and goes to the governor.

The House voted 79-2 to approve HB 1993 by Rep. Nate Steel, D-Nashville, which would allow juveniles who are convicted of capital murder to be sentenced to life with a possibility of parole after they have served 28 years in prison.

Under current state law, the only possible sentences for capital murder are death or life without parole, but the U.S. Supreme Court has said death sentences and mandatory sentences of life without parole are unconstitutional when applied to people under 18.

The bill goes to the Senate.

The House rejected SB 587 by Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, which would align school board elections with general elections. Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, who presented the bill in the House, said it would increase turnout for school elections.

The Arkansas School Boards Association opposes the bill. Bell said he has heard the argument that it is better to have informed, involved people voting in school elections, but he said he believes the people who vote in November are informed and involved.

“There are folks that would like to have 10 of their friends vote in their election and no one else,” he said.

The bill failed in a 32-42 vote.

The Senate approved SB 86, which would use $600,000 annually from the state’s Central Services Fund to pay for three additional attorneys for the Arkansas Public Defender Commission and three more deputy prosecutors starting July 1, 2014.

The bill, which passed 34-0, was opposed by the state Department of Finance and Administration’s budget director during a recent Joint Budget meeting.

It goes to the House.