Arkansas elected officials, including Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado and Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey Jr., R-Texarkana, watched on Wednesday as rioters invaded the U.S. Capitol after being incited by President Donald Trump. At least five people, including an Air Force veteran shot through the neck, and a police officer who was beaten, died in the ensuing melee.
During a roundtable discussion with reporters Friday (Jan. 8) via teleconference hosted by the Associated Press and the Arkansas Press Association, Shepherd and Hickey said they don’t think violence of that kind will happen at the state capitol as the Arkansas General Assembly convenes next week. Both noted that funding for the capitol police was expanded prior to the insurrectionists’ attacks in Washington D.C. and they expect there to be a healthy police presence during the session.
“(Safety) It’s always a concern,” Hickey said. He added that if constituents have an issue Arkansas legislators are accessible and he’s hoping “there won’t be any of that type of trouble” in Little Rock.
Shepherd told reporters his chief of staff met with the state police on Thursday to discuss safety-related issues. It is a priority considering the political environment right now, but Shepherd said he thinks the police can handle whatever safety issues, if any, arise during the session.
One key piece of legislation that will be discussed during the upcoming session will be the governor’s emergency powers. Shepherd said the two elements that could change might be the approval of a continuing emergency power and the individual mandates and directives.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson has used these powers broadly to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, but many legislators have complained that the body should be more involved in the process. Hickey said no one should second-guess the job the governor has done, despite the fact that some legislators want to check his emergency powers.
“He’s done a good job … we owe our thanks to him,” Hickey said.
The controversial “stand your ground” bill that failed during the last session will have a chance to pass during this one, both legislators agreed. It might depend on the specific language or provisions in the bill, but the concept is likely to be better received this time around.
“There’s a good chance it passes … you never know until the votes are taken,” Shepherd said.
A proposed hate crime bill will have a “steep climb” in the State Senate if the provisions in the current version aren’t changed, Hickey said. How the bill evolves during the session will be the key as to whether it becomes law or not, he added.
Shepherd said he’s open for discussions on the bill, but he, like Hickey, thinks it would be a tough sell in the State House at this point. He said issues in this bill, like many other bills, are typically fixed prior to a session beginning. The pandemic has caused lawmakers to adjust to a different form of dealmaking, and many issues will have to be ironed out during the session, he added.