The first extraordinary session of the 92nd General Assembly was rather ordinary in its business, but extraordinary in its setting.
Arkansas lawmakers wrapped up a three-day special session early Saturday morning (March 30) to create a COVID-19 Rainy Day Fund. The funding mechanism will collect money from a variety of surplus and discretionary state accounts and be available to handle special money from the federal government, if necessary.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson called legislators to Little Rock for the session to address a projected $353 million budget deficit brought about by the extension of individual income tax deadlines and a slowdown in commerce related to the coronavirus pandemic gripping the state, nation and world.
While the passage of two identical bills between the House and Senate was pretty routine, the environment for legislators was anything but normal.
The Arkansas Senate met in its chambers in the state Capitol, but due to health guidelines that propose safe distances between individuals, Senators were spaced out in their seating on the chamber floor and some sat in their offices or the public gallery overlooking the Senate chamber.
The House of Representatives spaced themselves apart at UA Little Rock’s Jack Stephens Center, the basketball arena for the mid-town campus and an arena used for other events.
HB 1001 and SB 2 passed both chambers on Friday unanimously. The vote was 100-0 in the House and 35-0 in the Senate. The legislation creates the fund and outlines a procedure for a six-member legislative panel to be able to convene for quick decisions on transferring funds and spending money for the pandemic emergency.
Gov. Hutchinson signed the legislation into law in the capitol rotunda shortly before 1 a.m. on Saturday morning.
When they adjourned in the wee hours of Saturday morning, fulfilling the mandatory three-day span of a special session, lawmakers left their respective buildings, but they may be back soon.
On April 8th, the legislature is set to meet for its even-numbered year fiscal sessions. Senate President Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, tells Talk Business & Politics that he expects a similar set-up on the Senate end for the fiscal session.
“I think the fiscal session will look much like the special session,” he said. “We do have rules now to allow proxy voting, so members who don’t need to be here for health reasons can participate, can watch the debate, and certainly vote.”
Hendren said the House was still working out some of its details, but both chambers hope to reveal plans next week in time to show up on April 8th. He has said publicly that the legislative body may meet and recess or conduct business on Day One, but for now, that decision was not final.