Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signs law restricting release of her travel, security records

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a law Thursday restricting release of her travel and security records after the Legislature wrapped up a special session marked by a fight to more broadly scale back the state Freedom of Information Act.

The law, which took effect immediately, allows the state to wall off details about the security provided the GOP governor and other constitutional officers, including who travels on the State Police airplane and the cost of individual trips. Proposed changes to the 1967 law protecting the public's access to government records were among several items Sanders had placed on the agenda for a session that met this week.

Sanders has argued the restrictions are needed to protect her and her family, citing threats she's faced since taking office and going back to her time as White House press secretary for former President Donald Trump.

“We protected the police officers who protect our constitutional officers and my family in keeping their security information and tactics exempt from Freedom of Information Act disclosure,” Sanders said before signing the measure, about two hours after lawmakers gave it final it approval.

Sanders and Republicans in the Legislature had initially pushed for more widespread exemptions to the open-records law, but backed off after facing growing criticism that it would erode government transparency.

Some of the opponents of the broader exemptions for other state agencies that had been proposed initially endorsed the legislation 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 being spent.

Democratic Rep. Andrew Collins said protecting the governor and her family is a good reason to exempt some records from release, but it should only be done as narrowly as possible.

“But I don’t think this is drawn as narrowly as possible,” Collins, who voted against the bill, said.

Sanders sought the security exemptions as the State Police was 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 tested positive for COVID-19 and would be unable to attend a hearing that had been scheduled for Thursday. Campbell posted on X, formerly Twitter, that he may refile the suit.

The new law requires the state to file a quarterly report with the Legislature listing the monthly costs of protecting the governor by category. The law is also retroactive to June 1, 2022, a provision State Police said was needed to protect preparation made for whoever became the next governor after the party primaries that year.

Supporters of the bill said the governor's higher profile has raised the security risk she and her family faces.

“With no offense to any of our previous governors, I can’t think of one at least in recent memory that was a household name the way our current governor is,” Republican Rep. 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 massive holes in the state's open records law.

Sanders left open the possibility of later seeking the other changes, which she has said is needed to improve government efficiency.

“We're not going to stop continuing to fight for more government efficiency and effectiveness, and I think this is just the beginning of this process,” Sanders said.

David Couch, an attorney who who has spearheaded successful ballot initiatives on medical marijuana and the minimum wage, said he's looking at the possibility of one that would enshrine the state's open-records law in the constitution.

“I think it would be overwhelmingly 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%. The legislation also creates a one-time nonrefundable 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 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 measure reinstates a similar 2021 law 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.