LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Gov. Arkansas Sarah Huckabee Sanders passed a law Thursday limiting the release of her travel and security records after the Legislature ended a special session marked by a fight to scale back the state’s Freedom of Information Act more broadly.
The law, which took effect immediately, allows the state to withhold details about the security provided to the GOP governor and other constitutional officials, including who travels on the State Police plane and the cost of individual trips . Proposed changes to the 1967 law that protects public access to government records were among several items Sanders had placed on the agenda for a session that met this week.
Sanders has argued that the restrictions are necessary to protect her and her family, citing the threats she has faced since taking office and going back to her time as White House press secretary on for former President Donald Trump.
“We protected the police officers who protect our constitutional officers and my family to keep their security information and tactics exempt from FOIA disclosure,” Sanders said before signing the bill, about two hours after lawmakers gave it final approval.
Sanders and Republicans in the Legislature had initially pushed for broader exemptions to the open records law, but backed off after facing mounting criticism that it would erode government transparency.
Some opponents applauded the broader exemptions for other state agencies the legislation initially proposed after it was pared down to the security measures. But it still faces criticism that it will keep the public in the dark about how taxpayer dollars are spent.
Democratic Representative Andrew Collins said that protecting the governor and her family is a good reason to exempt some records from being released, but it should only be done as narrowly as possible.
“But I don’t think this is being drawn as narrowly as possible,” said Collins, who voted against the measure.
Sanders sought the security exemptions as the State Police were sued by an attorney and blogger who accused the agency of illegally withholding records about the governor’s travel and security. But Matthew Campbell, who runs the Blue Hog Report website, asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit after Campbell said he had tested positive for COVID-19 and would not be able to attend a hearing scheduled for for Thursday. Campbell posted on X, formerly Twitter, that he might refill the suit.
The new law requires the state to file a quarterly report with the Legislature listing the governor’s monthly defense costs by category. The law is also retroactive to June 1, 2022, a provision State Police said was needed to protect the preparations made for whoever became the next governor after that year’s party primaries .
Supporters of the bill said the governor’s higher profile has raised the security risk she and her family face.
“With no offense to any of our previous governors, I can’t think of at least one in recent memory who was a household name like our current governor is,” Republican Representative David Ray told House members before the vote. .
The broader exemptions originally sought prompted an outcry from media groups, transparency advocates and some conservatives who said it would create huge holes in the state’s open records law.
Sanders left open the possibility of seeking the other changes later, which she has said are needed to improve government efficiency.
“We’re not going to stop continuing to fight for more government efficiency and effectiveness, and I believe this is just the beginning of this process,” Sanders said.
David Couch, an attorney who has led successful ballot initiatives on medical marijuana and the minimum wage, said he is looking at the possibility of one that would enshrine the state’s open records law in the constitution.
“I think it would be extremely popular,” Couch said.
Sanders signed other measures from the session, including legislation cutting the state’s top individual income tax rate from 4.7% to 4.4% and the corporate rate from 5.1 to 4.8 percent. The legislation also creates a one-time non-refundable tax credit of up to $150 for individuals and up to $300 for married couples making less than $90,000 a year. The reductions are estimated to have cost the state more than $248 million in the first year.
Sanders also signed legislation prohibiting state and local governments from requiring someone to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The bill reinstates a similar law in 2021 that expired last month. Any public entities that would require someone to be vaccinated in order to receive federal funding would have to seek approval from the Legislative Council to receive an exemption under the law.