Thursday (March 26) was one of the weirdest days in the Arkansas Legislature’s history, but members contacted for this story said they were OK with it, given the circumstances.
Members of the House met not at the Capitol but at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Jack Stephens Center, a basketball arena, where they sat in assigned seats in the stands spaced apart in order to contain the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Senators met at the Capitol but were spread across the floor, the gallery, and elsewhere.
Both the House and the Senate changed their rules to allow members not present to vote by proxy, meaning they expressed their wishes in writing and allowed another member to vote on their behalf.
Acting at the behest of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is projecting a $353 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2020, legislators debated two identical bills creating a framework for transferring and approving surplus and discretionary funds for state government operations.
The expected budget shortfall is expected because of an extension of individual income tax filing deadlines into July and because of the slowdown in commerce from the coronavirus pandemic.
The bills being considered – House Bill 1001 and Senate Bill 2 – create a COVID-19 Rainy Day Fund. Both chambers meet Friday afternoon to pass legislation and are expected to meet briefly after midnight in order to full the requirement to have a three-day session.
Rep. Justin Boyd, R-Fort Smith, said House members respected the process that legislative leaders had arranged, and everyone seemed to be complying with social distancing standards.
“It was a little awkward because you come in and normally you shake hands, you talk to people and interact, and the interaction was at a distance. … The social norms were just different,” he said.
Boyd arrived at the arena early and began the process of entering the building. Legislators stood at a distance from each other and then were medically screened as they entered. Then he went to his assigned seat in Section 100 near the top of the arena.
Interviewed by phone that afternoon while getting some exercise walking outside the Capitol, Boyd said legislators seemed to accept the realities of the current epidemic.
“I think it was more like, this is just life right now. I think you have a group of people that understands that we want to set examples for everybody else,” he said. “If there are reasons that you have to be together, you need to respect the rules to do what we can individually to minimize the spread of COVID-19.”
Rep. Megan Godfrey, D-Springdale, said she believed legislators did their best to comply with social distancing guidelines.
“I think we definitely wanted to set a good example, but I also knew we wanted to take those guidelines seriously as well,” she said, noting that some older members were not present.
Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, sat in section 101 on the top row, far above the arena floor where Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, led the proceedings. While he saw what he described as “99% compliance,” there were times when some members strayed within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended six-foot distance from each other.
“Some of them kind of got a little close at times, and the other people would usually back off from them, so they tried to do what we’re supposed to do,” he said.
The body met as a committee of the whole, so members could ask questions as if they were in a committee meeting. Anyone who had questions or wanted to speak – and there were no speakers – had to come down to the floor where microphones were waiting.
Cozart said doing business in the arena is challenging.
“The acoustics in there are terrible, and of course livestreaming is hard, too,” he said.
Cozart said the House Education Committee, which he chairs, is scheduled to meet April 7. That meeting will happen in the Multi-Agency Complex behind the Capitol, but attendance will be limited to committee members who will be spread out.
In the Senate, members arrived early for the proceedings and entered the building in the Capitol tunnel. State Capitol Police officers allowed senators inside, and they were directed to two medical personnel who were taking temperatures and asking questions, such as whether the member had traveled out of state or had abnormal symptoms.
Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, said senators were mindful of social distancing standards. Senators were using hand sanitizer and wiping the areas around them.
Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, offered an amendment to the rainy day fund bill that failed by a 13-17 vote. Dismang said Hickey had communicated what his amendment would do prior to the session, which made it possible for members to vote by proxy.
The members had assigned seating in the Senate chamber, with those with less seniority assigned to the gallery while others were elsewhere, where they voted by proxy. Sen. Bruce Maloch, D-Magnolia, presided. Senators in the gallery who wanted to ask questions would be recognized and given time to descend to the Senate floor.
“There was a lot of things to consider to be able to have the session this way, and I thought it worked about as smoothly as it could,” said Sen. Will Bond, D-Little Rock. He later added, “Besides being spaced out, I didn’t feel it was that much different than normal.”
Bond noted that the process was made possible by the Senate’s decision to livestream its proceedings starting last year.
The rules changes allowing proxy votes will be in place not only for the special session but for the rest of the General Assembly’s meetings this year, including the even-numbered-year fiscal session that is supposed to begin April 8.
Could the proxy vote survive the coronavirus pandemic and become a regular feature of legislative sessions? Godfrey said it could be used in the future if needed for public health, but face-to-face conversations are better. Bond said meeting face-to-face “breeds more cooperation, more understanding of each other’s positions.”
Boyd said a precedent has been set “for when circumstances of this magnitude arise, there is another way to do business.”
However, he also prefers meeting in person.
“I certainly do think that there are certain scenarios where it could be employed again in the future,” he said. “My gut doesn’t tell me this is the way we’re going to routinely do business going forward.”