House, Senate decline to meet before session to consider Governor’s emergency pandemic order

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 907 views 

Less than a week after Gov. Asa Hutchinson suggested the state Legislature meet in a Committee of the Whole to consider supporting his emergency declaration due to COVID-19, leaders of both chambers said Tuesday (Dec. 15) they would wait until the regular session in January 2021.

In a televised prime time speech to the state last Thursday, Gov. Hutchinson asked the legislature to support his current COVID-19 emergency declaration, which began in March and has been most recently extended to Dec. 31, 2020. The declaration has allowed the governor to restrict and expand a number of activities in the interest of public health.

“I think that [Committee of the Whole vote] gives the legislature an opportunity to show the people in Arkansas that we’re all on the same team and that we all see this as an emergency that we have to deal with,” Hutchinson said last week.

“I’m saying it in a positive sense that join me in declaring this an emergency and recognizing that, so they can really set the date. I’ve given them to December 30th to do it, which presumably would be fairly quickly because they don’t want to wait until later on, but they can meet. They either have to continue to support me in continuing the emergency, or they have to go a different direction. Obviously in this environment, I have to think that they will support the continuation of the emergency,” Hutchinson added.

Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, issued a statement late Tuesday saying he has visited with members of his chamber and would decline meeting this month.

“After reviewing the possible processes available, discussions with members, and given that at the end of the month we will only be eleven days from the next regular session, I have decided not to convene a Committee of the Whole,” Shepherd said.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, sent a letter to his colleagues mid-afternoon that said a meeting would not take place.

“After discussions with many of you and the House leadership about the Governor’s request for a Committee of the Whole, I will not be calling such a meeting. I’ve heard from many of you about the desire to wait and have this discussion during the session,” Hendren wrote.

“We all know the Emergency Service Act will be vigorously debated during the session, as it should be. Rather than debating the issue twice, most would prefer to wait and have the debate when we will be in a position to have time for more testimony, discussions, and actually implement any changes that we determine are appropriate. I have notified the Governor,” he said.

Gov. Hutchinson said in a Talk Business & Politics interview last Thursday that he expected there to be a debate over his emergency powers in the forthcoming legislative session, which begins January 11, 2021.