Lawmakers ready single bill for COVID-19 special session; House will meet at Stephens Center

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 2,209 views 

UA Little Rock Jack T. Stephens Center courtesy of CDI Contractors.

Arkansas legislative leaders are polling support for a single piece of legislation for a special session that would begin Thursday (March 26) to fill budget holes caused by the economic fallout from the COVID-19 coronavirus. During that special session, the House of Representatives will meet at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Jack Stephens Center rather than the state Capitol in order to limit close contact of legislators.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson will call the special session once support for the bill is attained, Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, said Tuesday night.

“I feel confident we’ll get there,” he said. “We’re polling it tonight. We’re letting members read the bill and answer questions about it.”

Hendren said the governor and leadership in both the House and the Senate have agreed to the bill, but Hutchinson wants to ensure the proposal enjoys sufficient support before calling the Legislature into session.

The goal is to issue the call on Wednesday, March 25, for the Legislature to go into a brief special session the next day, although they will have to officially meet over a three calendar day period.

The House and Senate both will take steps to practice social distancing. For the special session, the 100-member House is moving its proceedings to the UA Little Rock Stephens Center, a college basketball arena 4.5 miles from the Capitol. Members will spread out in the stands and be medically screened at the entrance, a House member said.

The 35-member Senate will meet as usual at the Capitol, but will adopt social distancing rules that will apply to the special session and to a fiscal session scheduled to begin April 8. A maximum of 20 senators will be on the floor in assigned seating locations sitting in every other seat, with others in the gallery. Others will participate via proxy or electronically, perhaps from their offices at the Capitol. Hendren said one member has already said they will participate remotely. Staff and media will be limited, though the proceedings will be live-streamed.

Hutchinson announced Monday that the state faces a $353 million budget shortfall for the last three months of this fiscal year caused by falling government revenues and by his coming decision to extend the filing deadline for individuals from April 15 to July 15. However, the governor is waiting to move the filing deadline until he knows he can fill the holes in the budget through the proposed legislation.

Legislative leaders in both the House and the Senate have drafted a bill that would take the state’s $173 million unallocated reserve surplus and transfer it to a special COVID-19 fund. The governor could use that money to fill holes in the budget that will come as a result of the automatic cuts made by the state’s Revenue Stabilization Act.

That’s a law passed each session that places government spending priorities into Categories A, B and C, and then makes cuts automatically if revenues fall short. The cuts begin in Category C and then occur in B and A. All three will be cut this time.

The bill would allow the governor to fund programs such as those in the Department of Health or Department of Human Services that would automatically be cut but are needed to combat the coronavirus epidemic.

The disbursements would have to be approved by two of the following legislative leaders in each chamber: in the House, the speaker, the majority leader and the minority leader; in the Senate, the president pro tempore, majority leader and minority leader. The Hutchinson administration would have to report disbursements and fund balances to the Legislature.

Normally, such changes would go through a committee process, but Hendren said that’s not feasible in this environment.

“There may be an outbreak somewhere and the governor needs to spend some funds quickly,” Hendren said. “We needed a more expeditious way to do it for a response to the virus, but we also put in provisions that every member of the Legislature will be notified of all of these requests and approvals.”

Hendren said there is “some disagreement about how quick and how cumbersome the approval process would be, but I am confident we will pass some legislation, and I think, again, we’re going to get there.”