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93rd Arkansas Legislative Session Convenes, Pandemic Influence Apparent

Arkansas Capitol
Michael Hibblen

On the first day of the 93rd Arkansas General Assembly, the House of Representatives voted to seat all 100 of its members and re-elect its speaker. The Senate formally voted for a new president pro tempore, but amid a worsening coronavirus pandemic, the chamber saw heated debate about whether members should be punished for not wearing face masks.

In the House, surrounded by plexiglass, members took their oath of office administered by Arkansas Supreme Court Justice John Dan Kemp. Earlier in the day, 96 representatives voted to seat all 100 elected and certified members of the House, with two voting present and one voting against.

The motion included Rep. Ashley Hudson, D-Little Rock, who narrowly won her election against incumbent Rep. Jim Sorvillo, R-Little Rock. The results of the election had faced  challenges, including lawsuits filed by Sorvillo.

The House also voted unanimously to re-elect Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, to serve as speaker. Addressing colleagues afterward, Shepherd spoke on obstacles the COVID-19 pandemic might bring to the session, including longer work hours.

“As we proceed, I ask you to remember the challenges your constituents face at home: The teachers who are creating multiple lesson plans, the restaurant owners trying to keep their doors open, or the nurses who haven’t had a day off,” Shepherd said. "If we as a state have asked our essential workers to keep going, then it is incumbent upon us to do the same as long as we prudently can.”

Earlier in the day, House Democrats spoke on some of the issues they would like to focus on during the session. In an interview with KUAR News, House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, said she expects to see bipartisan support on some issues including an already filed hate-crimes bill, which has the backing of Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

“Many of us certainly are already co-sponsors on that bill and believe that it’s needed and we’ll certainly work together on that. I think that there are a lot of tax plans that are going to come through that we’re going to have to look at,” McCullough said. “Don’t know if there’s any of those that we’ll agree on, but if there is, that would of course be incredible. And I think surely that some COVID-19 issues that we can I think, in hindsight be much better prepared for and come together on.”

Shepherd said he believes the pandemic has reminded many lawmakers “that an individual’s worth does not equate to their net worth.”

“The Arkansans who we have relied on the most this year are the ones who have asked the least in return, and they live in every one of your districts. Ask yourself as you begin to create new legislation, how it makes life better for those who have made your lives easier,” Shepherd said.

McCullough said some of the goals state Democrats would like to see concerning COVID-19 include making sure teachers, educators and students are protected as well as continuing to fund the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences “at the level that it needs to be funded.”

“They’ve been so instrumental in taking us on this awful journey and being there for research and science and to speak for that and statistics and all of those things. And too, of course the hands-on job of being with people when they’re sick or when they’re dying. It’s important that we keep our health systems really robust and strong,” McCullough said.

In addition to hate-crimes legislation, which has already generated opposition from some Republicans, one bill that McCullough says will see opposition from Democrats will be a “Stand Your Ground” bill.

In the Senate, members voted to name Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, president pro tempore. In a brief acceptance speech, Hickey called his colleagues “a salty group, for sure,” while promising to hold them to high standards.

“I want you to know that I have every intention to manage strongly. I have every intention to question your legislation as hard as I ever have, and I’ll fight to make sure that this Senate is the great body which it is constitutionally designed to be,” Hickey said.

During procedural work that followed, mostly involving committee assignments and rules, debate broke out about the enforcement of a rule requiring legislators to wear face masks at all times. Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, proposed an amendment panelizing those who fail to wear one by having to forfeit their per diem payments for the day. A second violation would keep a member from participating in the follow day’s session.

Sen. Stephanie Flowers arguing for her amendment Monday that would punish legislators for not wearing masks at all times.
Credit Arkansas Legislature
Arkansas Legislature

“If some of us don’t take it serious and others do, I think we need to be protected from one another,” Flowers said. “I take this serious. I have an aunt who’s in the hospital right now with COVID. I know others that have died from COVID, members of this body have suffered from COVID.”

However other senators questioned whether the amendment was needed. Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, spoke against the proposal suggesting it could unfairly penalize someone for a minor mishap.

“Just a few minutes ago as I was being sworn in my mask slipped down below my nose twice. The first time I took my hand down, pulled [the mask] up. The second time I was going to and I noticed that Justice Kemp’s had also, as he was talking, slipped down below his nose,” Clark said. “As serious as I take this – I don’t take the mask as serious, but I take your health seriously and I take your feelings seriously.”

The amendment was rejected on a voice vote.

The legislature will convene Tuesday for Gov. Hutchinson’s State of the State address, which is scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m.

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