Though the old saying goes there’s always a calm before the storm, lobbyists within the Diocese of Little Rock hope that the calm lasts beyond this legislative session in Arkansas.
“This legislative session seems to me, even though there’s a higher volume of bills, it just seems more calm,” said Patrick Gallaher executive director for Catholic Charities of Arkansas. “One of the things that may have made it calmer is we have a governor who is in the same party as the controlling party in the legislature and there seems to be a consistent plan for legislation. So long as that plan is executed out in the open and not in smoke-filled back rooms, we’re in good shape.”
For the first time since Reconstruction, Arkansas has all Republicans in the congressional districts, the U.S. Senate, total control in the state House and Senate, along with newly elected Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Gallaher, who has served as executive director for four years, said the diocese has worked closer than in the past with other groups and individuals, from Arkansas Right to Life to Catholic lawyers, to create a more coordinated and united voice on issues important to the Church.
“Over the last two years since the last legislative session we’ve been talking with people about respect life issues, we’ve been talking with people about death penalty issues,” Gallaher said. “Last summer we had contacts and spoke with people about the minimum wage and that went so well it’s not even an issue this legislative session.”
While the diocese has a list of initiatives to watch, including immigration and education, no legislative moves have been made, Gallaher said. However, there are important respect life issues and health care measures of interest to Catholic voters:
Arkansas Right to Life has dedicated itself to banning webcam abortions in Arkansas. Arkansas SB53 was filed in the state senate, with sponsor Sen. Missy Irvin of Mountain View and HB1076 filed in the House, with sponsor Rep. Julie Mayberry of Hensley. The House bill passed Feb. 2.
“We are grateful for the House action on this important bill to save unborn children and protect their mothers from this dangerous method of abortion delivery in Arkansas,” said Rose Mimms, executive director of Arkansas Right to Life. “We expect easy passage in the Arkansas Senate as well and Gov. (Asa) Hutchinson to sign it into law.”
“As Catholics, we believe that every life is sacred, from conception to natural death,” said Becky Mullican, director of the diocesan Respect Life Office. “It’s important for Catholics to support a ban on all abortion, so that the life of the child, the mother and the father may be treated with the dignity that comes from God.”
Arkansas Right to Life attempted to ban the practice in 2013, but ran out of time in the general session, said Rose Mimms, executive director of Arkansas Right to Life.
“It’s our top priority to ban it in Arkansas,” Mimms said. “We’re going to get it done this time. It’s too important not to. This is Planned Parenthood’s future in Arkansas.”
Mimms said drug-induced abortions are on the rise in Arkansas, mainly facilitated by Planned Parenthood clinics in Little Rock and Fayetteville, recently taken over by Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, which covers the Midwest. Arkansas’ one surgical abortion doctor will soon be retiring. Because of this, Mimms predicts webcam abortions will begin in Arkansas, as Planned Parenthood of the Heartland has pushed this method in Iowa, Illinois and Idaho.
The way a webcam abortion is conducted is a woman goes to a Planned Parenthood clinic and is connected to a doctor via a video internet connection. The doctor then determines whether the woman is a candidate for this type of abortion, which must be performed within 63 days of conception.
“The baby has to be small enough for the drugs to kill it and extract it,” without professional medical assistance, Mimms said.
Since the practice started around 2003 in the United States, at least 14 women have died from complications, Mimms said.
For almost 20 years, Sister Joan Pytlik, DC, has been working on legislation to abolish the death penalty in Arkansas. Though efforts have failed in the past, the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty has renewed hope that the bill they’ve been working on for about two years will eliminate the death penalty in the state. As of press time, the bill had not yet been introduced.
“Basically it just removes death penalty as a possible sentence from the statute. It leaves in life without parole for capital murder,” said Sister Joan, who chairs the organization’s legislative committee.
From a religious standpoint, the Daughter of Charity said as Catholics, we “respect life from the womb to the tomb.”
Sister Joan said, “Looking at it from the Old Testament it’s an eye for an eye, and Jesus came and changed all that — love your enemies. Jesus would not say a heinous crime deserves the ultimate punishment here. We need forgiveness, rehabilitation, we need justice but that does not include killing.”
Arkansas has not had an execution since 2005 because of appeals, Sister Joan said. Gallaher said Bishop Anthony B. Taylor “has always been opposed to the death penalty,” but as of press time had not seen the bill.
“Catholics can tell their state legislators that they oppose the death penalty and please vote against it,” Sister Joan said. “If the bill comes up, it might come in the Senate committee in the next couple of weeks. There’s no time to waste.”
In 2013, the Affordable Care Act provided funding for Medicaid expansion for three years, leaving the state responsible for up to 10 percent of the cost by 2020.
“The private option that was put into place two years ago is an important step in making health care available to everyone,” Gallaher said, in reference to the ACA. “When you say universal health care a lot of people think solely government-sponsored health care, and I don’t think that’s what the bishops are in favor of. They want everyone to have access to health care, and it doesn’t have to be paid for by a single government entity.”
Gallaher said the diocese wants to make sure there is a good system in place after the three-year mark so the Medicaid expansion can continue to be funded.
“We just want to watch it and make sure that what the governor said he wants to happen actually happens,” Gallaher said. “We have to keep an eye on that and see what it’s going to turn into … There are people that are committed against the private option. I think they have good intentions … it’s just a vast difference of opinions.”
Gallaher said it’s “tremendous” that almost a quarter of a million people have health care that didn’t have it before and it made a difference when Catholic Charities of Arkansas assisted with tornado recovery last spring in Faulkner county.
“We expected to see people coming to our recovery centers needing health care, needing their prescriptions filled, with chronic conditions that had been ignored and we didn’t find that,” Gallaher said. “Everyone came in and they were registered (for health insurance). That was one area that allowed us to free up sources for clothes, utilities, things like that.”
If more legislators do not support the funding, it could mean trouble for the program down the road.
“I think there are seven senators I can name right now that are opposed to the private option and that’s going to become an issue when the funding for next year’s private option comes up because of the way the Arkansas constitution is put together for finance matters,” Gallaher said. “The legislature has to approve finance measures by 75 percent. Well, if you’ve only got 35 senators, that’s just a few people. They wield a disproportionate amount of influence because of that. I think constituents living in their districts if they want to extend private option, if they want people to remain covered for health care purposes, then they should communicate with their elected officials. … How do you take away somebody’s health care?”
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