Arkansas’ 93rd General Assembly didn’t even get through committee assignments and rulemaking procedures this week before a member came down with COVID-19. State Rep. Milton Nicks, Jr., D-Marion, tested positive for the virus it was announced Thursday (Jan. 14).
Arkansas House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, told reporters in his first weekly press conference that Nicks attended sessions Monday and Tuesday and contact tracing was being performed. As of Thursday afternoon, Shepherd wasn’t aware of any other members testing positive.
“All indicators are he is doing well,” Shepherd said.
It was noted that multiple lawmakers were not wearing masks during sessions, and Shepherd was asked what steps will be taken to force compliance with public safety and health recommendations.
Shepherd didn’t offer any specifics but did say that during committee meetings, members who don’t wear a mask may not be called upon during those sessions. Shepherd admitted he didn’t notice anyone not wearing a mask, but as the legislature turns towards substantive legislation next week it would be monitored more closely.
On another front, the federal government and many law enforcement agencies have been on high alert since the domestic terror attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. State and local agencies have been preparing for a potential surge in violence in the lead-up to President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, but Shepherd hasn’t been made aware of any specific threats in Little Rock.
His office and other lawmakers have been in close contact with the Arkansas State Police and other agencies.
Shepherd wasn’t sure what major legislation would come through committees next week, noting that it was a short week. The body will only meet on Tuesday and Thursday due to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday on Monday and the Presidential inauguration on Wednesday.
One bill that has garnered a lot of attention, SB 24 – the “Stand your Ground” bill – is expected to make it through the State Senate possibly as early as next week. Law enforcement and many in the justice community had opposed the controversial bill the last legislative session, but those groups are neutral now that changes have been made to the bill, Shepherd added.
At this point, there has been a lot of talk about technical points within the bill, he said. There has been focus on the unintended consequences of the bill’s language, and it’s being vetted, he added. Shepherd has not staked out a position on the high-profile bill yet.
When asked how long he expects the session to last, Shepherd said he didn’t know. Some lawmakers have said in the past they wanted the session to last no longer than a certain amount of days or for it to not last past a specific date. Shepherd said he doesn’t adhere to those predetermined timeframes.
“We are going to let the work dictate that,” he said.