- Associated Press - Saturday, May 21, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The Arkansas Legislature avoided a fight during its special session on highways over which restrooms transgender people could use, but lawmakers on both side of the issue say it’ll certainly be on the agenda when they return to the Capitol next year.

Days after telling public schools to disregard an Obama administration directive that they must permit transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he didn’t want to take up the issue during a special session dedicated to highway funding. But the Republican governor acknowledged it’s something that’ll be waiting for the Legislature in 2017.

“I do think this is going to be a continuing debate and discussion in our country and it will probably come up in the general session next year,” the Republican governor said at a news conference. “I have indicated to those legislators that I would be happy to work with them to address any privacy concerns that need to be addressed in light of President Obama’s directive.”

The federal guidance issued this month by the U.S. departments of Justice and Education does not impose any new legal requirements, but is instead meant to clarify expectations of school districts that receive federal funding. Arkansas has received $432 million in federal funds for its public schools in the fiscal year ending June 30, according to the state Department of Finance and Administration.

So far, the only action Arkansas lawmakers have taken is a non-binding resolution supporting Hutchinson’s criticism of the directive and urging the Justice Department to drop its lawsuit against North Carolina over a recently adopted law restricting bathroom access.

“If it becomes an issue within the state where we start to see a lot of confusion among the school districts, then as representatives of the people, obviously we’ll debate it,” said Republican Rep. Stephen Meeks, who introduced the resolution passed by the Arkansas Legislative Council last week.

Republican Sen. Missy Irvin said she didn’t ask the governor to put the issue on the session agenda, but is working on legislation for next year’s session in response to the Obama administration’s directive. Irvin indicated her bill would focus primarily on what she described as privacy concerns for children.

“It is our job as parents to protect our children and so I feel very strongly about protecting children and making sure their privacy is also respected and that they have a right to privacy,” Irvin said. “That for me is something I will be working on for the 2017 session, you bet.”

It’s unclear whether Hutchinson would support legislation similar to North Carolina’s law, which directs transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds with the sex on their birth certificate. The state is currently fending off a lawsuit from the Justice Department as well as a growing list of boycotts from businesses and entertainers who call the measure discriminatory.

That’s the type of fight Hutchinson sought to avoid last year when he asked lawmakers to quickly revise a religious objections measure that faced similar criticism from opponents that included Bentonville-based Wal-Mart. The state is also fighting in court over another measure Hutchinson allowed to become law that prevents cities and counties from extending anti-discrimination protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. That law prompted several cities to pass anti-discrimination ordinances in defiance of the restriction.

Democrats have warned wading into the bathroom debate could put Arkansas under a harsh spotlight similar to what North Carolina has experienced since enacting its measure. They’ve also questioned the need to focus on such an issue.

“I would certainly oppose any legislation that’s similar to what we’ve seen in North Carolina,” said Democratic Rep. Greg Leding, who opposed the resolution. “Not only do I think it’s wrong, but we’ve already seen North Carolina take a significant hit. … I just hope our state could avoid that.”

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Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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