Gov. Hutchinson sets Thursday for special session; two COVID-19 deaths in Arkansas

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 1,047 views 

To address an estimated $353 million budget shortfall, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday (March 24) he hopes a special session can begin Thursday, but said consensus is needed on a plan because he wants to reduce the time legislators will need to be at the state capitol.

Because of reduced economic activity related to COVID-19 and the plan to delay state individual income tax filings and payments to July 15, the state could face an estimated $353.1 million budget shortfall.

According to the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, the state has the following balances in its key short-term and long-term reserve and discretionary funds that could be used to address the shortfall.

  • General Revenue Allotment Reserve Fund – $173.61 million
  • Restricted Reserve Fund- $42.27 million
  • Long Term Reserve – $152.58 million
  • Quick Action Closing Fund – $90.99 million

Gov. Hutchinson said during Tuesday’s daily COVID-19 press conference he does not plan to issue a call for the special session until there is a consensus among legislators about legislation to deal with the shortfall. He said it would not be wise to gather the legislators together and then spend time in “contentious debate.”

Talk Business & Politics has learned that the governor is wanting to limit the call for the special session to just one major measure, which would address the budget shortfall. Other potential items, such as a Democratic Party of Arkansas call to extend and expand unemployment benefits, are not in his current realm for consideration.

“Like everyone else, I am concerned about the small business owner or self-employed person who is out of work because of the COVID-19 impact. Hopefully, Congress will provide some financial relief in light of the national health care emergency. The Special Session should only address the one bill to address the immediate budget shortfall. Other matters should wait until future sessions of the legislature. By then, we will have a more complete picture of the needs and the scope of federal assistance,” Hutchinson said.

In response to a question about how 135 legislators – 100 in the Arkansas House and 35 in the Senate – could gather and still abide by social distancing, Hutchinson said House and Senate leadership plan to brief Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith on how they plan to “take extra precautions to take the social distancing that is needed.” He also said there will be screening for legislators and other capitol visitors.

For example, Senate President Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, has said a session will require significant rule changes for the legislature. In the 35-member Senate, he said there will be limits on the number of senators on the floor, they may utilize technology to allow proxy voting, and perhaps station some senators in the public gallery in order to keep CDC-compliant spacing between members.

COVID-19 cases in Arkansas rose from 174 on Monday to 218 as of early afternoon on Tuesday. There have also been two deaths in Arkansas, with both being in central Arkansas and not tied to the outbreak in nursing homes.

Gov. Hutchinson cautioned that the state is early in the COVID-19 cycle and the number of deaths and cases will continue to rise.

As of Tuesday at 1 p.m., there were 49,768 U.S. cases and 600 deaths. Globally, there were around 407,485 cases and more than 18,227 deaths.

The governor also said the state received on Tuesday 24 pallets from the federal stockpile which includes 27,800 N95 masks. Also, one million units of personal protective equipment (PPE) are expected to be delivered this weekend. That delivery is part of what the state is acquiring through a $30 million fund established by the state. With the federal supplies and the expected weekend shipment, Gov. Hutchinson said the state will have PPE for the next 60 days at the “current usage rate.”