LITTLE ROCK — A bill to toughen Arkansas’ human trafficking laws and offer new protections to victims passed in the House on Friday in a 91-0 vote.
Also, a House committee advanced a bill that would offer cash rewards to state employees who blow the whistle on government waste and fraud.
The Senate did not meet Friday.
House Bill 1203 by Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, would expand the definition of human trafficking and make it a Class Y felony, punishable by 10 to 40 years or life in prison. Human trafficking is currently a Class A felony, punishable by six to 30 years in prison and up to a $15,000 fine.
The bill also would allow victims to collect restitution; make it a felony for a person to knowingly patronize a prostitute who is a human trafficking victim; allow a person accused of prostitution to claim as a defense that the prostitution was the result of being a victim of human trafficking; and allow the attorney general to create a task force on human trafficking.
Speaking for the bill on the House floor, Meeks said recent cases in Hot Springs and Little Rock have shown that human trafficking is a problem in Arkansas.
"It’s a terrible crime," Meeks said.
Meeks said he worked on the bill with several other legislators, the attorney general’s office, the Arkansas Prosecuting Attorneys Association, the anti-human trafficking group Polaris Project and various state agencies.
The bill goes to the Senate, where a mirror bill by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, passed on Thursday.
Also Friday, the House voted 90-0 to pass HB 1021 by Rep. Marshall Wright, D-Forrest City. Under the bill, if a prison inmate is required to appear in court for a civil proceeding not arising from a criminal charge or conviction, the court can order the state Department of Correction or the state Department of Community Correction to reimburse the local sheriff’s office for the cost of transporting the inmate.
"If any of you want to go back today and call your county sheriff and your county judge and tell them that you voted for this bill, they will be very, very happy with you," Wright said.
The bill goes to the Senate.
Elsewhere, the House State and Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee endorsed HB 1043 by Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena. Under the bill, a state employee who reports government waste or fraud under the Arkansas Whistle-Blower Act would be entitled to a reward in the amount of 10 percent of the amount of money saved through action resulting from the report.
"We want to make sure that we incentivize those folks to do what needs to be done and make sure that it doesn’t come at great personal cost to them as well," Bell told the committee.
Rep. Betty Overbey, D-Lamar, said she was concerned that department heads would be flooded with reports from reward-seekers and that many of the reports would be groundless, yet every report would have to investigated with an audit.
"I can see this costing the state some money," she said.
Bell said he did not expect a flood of reports.
"Once people realize that you know have 50-odd-thousand state employees that have a financial incentive to report if something fraudulent happens, it’s going to have a very chilling effect on anything like that happening," he said.
The bill passed on a voice vote with some "no" votes heard. It goes to the House.