Senate convenes, debates mask rules on Day One

by George Jared ([email protected]) 1,002 views 

Photo courtesy of Sen. Jason Rapert.

Arkansas Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey Jr., R-Texarkana, officially took office as the leader of the State Senate as the 93rd General Assembly began Monday (Jan. 11). State Sen. Scott Flippo, R-Bull Shoals, was installed as the majority leader while Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, was named as the minority leader.

Hickey said he has been inundated with interview requests in recent weeks, and often he’s asked to describe the personality of the new State Senate as a whole and about individual senators. He could only come up with one reply.

“I keep telling them you’re a salty group for sure,” he said to a chorus of laughter.

The initial gathering of the State Senate lasted roughly two hours and mostly dealt with minor rule making, procedural protocols and committee assignments, but an amendment proposed by State Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, provided spirited debate. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many safety measures have been put into place at the Capitol including mask wearing, social distancing, restricting the number of people in rooms, and the placement of barriers to limit the spread of germs.

Flowers proposed a rule that senators should be required to keep their masks over their mouths and noses at nearly all-times during the sessions. Failure to do so would result in a loss of daily per diem, she proposed. A second violation would stop a member from participating in the next day’s session.

“I want to impress on all of us the importance of wearing a mask,” she said.

Several members asked her why this move was necessary. Flowers responded pointing out that several members have not been following the rules, and at one point noted that State Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, doesn’t wear a mask.

State Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, said he understood the safety dangers associated with virus spread, but he thought the amendment went too far. He noted that during the session his own mask had dropped below his nose several times, and that during his swearing-in ceremony, the judge’s mask also dropped below nose level.

The amendment was struck down on a voice vote. Later, as the Senate adopted its rules, it did call for a mask to be worn at all times in the chamber and committee rooms with limited exceptions, such as eating and drinking, speaking into a microphone, and if maintaining a six-foot distance from others.

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