Arkansas Legislature begins session in middle of pandemic

LITTLE ROCK (AP) – The Arkansas Senate rejected an effort Monday to penalize members who don’t wear face masks, as lawmakers returned to the Capitol in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.The House and Senate convened for the 93rd General Assembly, with both chambers adding plastic partitions and new rules intended to cut down overcrowding at the state Capitol.

The Legislature met as the FBI issued a bulletin warning of plans for armed protests at all 50 state capitals and in Washington ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration. Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he had directed additional state police resources as an extra precaution on Monday but had not activated the Arkansas National Guard.

“At this point there is not a particular threat of concern but we will take necessary steps to protect our Capitol and those who work or visit here,” Hutchinson said in a statement.

The first day featured a debate over just how far the Legislature’s virus safety measures should go. The Senate adopted procedures requiring members to wear a mask in the chamber but rejected a proposal that said those who don’t comply face the possibility of losing per diems.

“We need… something that would impress on senators the seriousness of wearing a mask and protecting their own health as well as others,” said Democratic Sen. Stephanie Flowers, who proposed the measure. Under Flowers’ proposal, violators of the mask rule would be excluded from the Senate the following day.

Efforts to require lawmakers to wear a mask have faced resistance, even in states where legislatures have had outbreaks or there have been a record number of cases. Arkansas is tied with South Dakota for the largest outbreak in a state legislature, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press. Both states have had 21 lawmakers test positive since the pandemic began.

Opponents of Flowers’ proposal said they believed it went too far with its penalties and questioned whether the Senate could legally enforce it.

“I have serious doubts that we can financially penalize members. I have more serious doubts that we should,” said Republican Sen. Alan Clark, who added he also has bigger concerns about members being excluded from the chamber if they violate the rule.

The Senate approved rules requiring senators, staff and the public to wear a mask in the chamber and committee rooms except when speaking to a microphone, eating or drinking, or at least six feet away from other people. Similar rules are pending before a House committee.

The pandemic has overshadowed the operations and logistics of the session. The Senate’s procedures include steps to allow some lawmakers to participate remotely. The Legislature is also taking steps aimed at preventing crowding of committee rooms, including limited seating and “holding rooms” for people who want to testify on bills.

One lawmaker said he was worried about lobbyists taking advantage of the new system.

“I figure lobbyists are going to figure it out real quick,” Democratic Sen. Larry Teague said.

The pandemic has also prompted a fight over the restrictions Hutchinson has imposed to curb the virus’s spread. Some GOP lawmakers have proposed scaling back the restrictions or the governor’s emergency powers altogether.

Other issues expected to come up during the session include a hate crimes bill, tax cuts and “stand your ground” legislation. Hutchinson planned to deliver his State of the State address to the Legislature on Tuesday.

Speaking to his chamber, House Speaker Matthew Shepherd warned representatives that the pandemic would be a challenge as they approach the session.

“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,” the Republican speaker said.

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