The worst viral plague to hit the country since the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918 cast a pall over the state of Arkansas and its leadership during most of 2020 and it continues in 2021. Gov. Asa Hutchinson passed a series of emergency orders to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic to stop the spread of the deadly disease that has claimed at least 6,000 Arkansans and sickened hundreds of thousands more.
Steps taken included mask mandates, temperature checks to enter certain businesses, social distance requirements, the closing of indoor dining for a period and others. Businesses that violated these standards were fined.
A few elected leaders in the Arkansas Legislature took umbrage with an emergency powers process that didn’t include the legislative branch. The body took steps to ensure it will be more involved if this pandemic takes a step in the wrong direction, or if another prolonged health emergency engulfs the state.
The emergency order issued by Hutchinson expired on May 30. Several NEA legislators — Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, Rep. Monte Hodges, D-Blytheville, and Rep. Joe Jett, R-Success — assessed the governor’s and the overall state’s response to the crisis for Talk Business & Politics.
Rep. Jimmy Gazaway
Gazaway was a co-sponsor of SB379, now Act 403, that limits statewide states of emergency to 60 days unless renewed by the governor. However, the Legislative Council could vote to deny the request for renewal. The Legislative Council is a group of lawmakers that meets when the Legislature is not in session.
The Legislature would be able to terminate the emergency by passing a concurrent resolution in a committee of the whole in both the House and Senate. The chambers could vote to override a governor’s veto of the denial in another committee of the whole.
The bill says the governor would declare a statewide public health-related state of disaster emergency if a communicable disease affects at least 19 counties or the total number of persons in at least 25% of the state’s population. The House and Senate would convene as a committee of the whole within eight business days of the governor’s declaration if it is related to public health.
Governors who want to renew a state of emergency related to public health would have to submit a written statement to the Legislative Council at least 10 days prior to the date when the declaration would expire.
Another area where the legislature needs more oversight authority is the distribution of funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), Gazaway said. When CARES Act funds began to flow into the state, the governor was able to hand pick a few legislators to determine how the money would be spent.
Legislation passed this session gives the legislature more authority to determine how those federal dollars are spent, and that will be important moving forward, Gazaway said. The state is slated to receive another $1.5 billion in CARES Act funds, he said.
With the emergency order lifted and the number of COVID deaths and overall cases in sharp decline, Gazaway said he can’t envision a scenario where the state would reinstitute those measures unless there was a catastrophic increase in the case load.
“I feel like the governor did a pretty good job … we didn’t entirely shut down. We didn’t completely shut down commerce, and we reopened our schools unlike other states,” he said. “But, the people’s voice, the legislature, needs to be heard. The legislature wasn’t a true partner. We should have a say in the emergency declaration process.”
Rep. Monte Hodges
Hodges thinks the passage of Act 403 could inhibit public safety if there is a virus resurgence or if another public health crisis hits the state. Adding layers of government bureaucracy might delay response times, he said.
In a rare bit of bipartisanship, the Democratic representative praised Gov. Hutchinson’s initial response and approach throughout the crisis.
“I applaud the governor … I think he did a good job. I think we were a little slow starting out [the state response], but he kept everyone informed about what was going on,” he said.
Hodges had no issue with the governor acting unilaterally. Arkansas was facing an immediate health crisis that required Hutchinson to act swiftly, he said. It is the job of the executive branch to move swiftly when lives are in danger, he added. There was a group within the legislature that wanted to “tie the governor’s hand.”
“The governor was doing his job. I trust his judgment,” he said.
He does think, however, that some of the phases for reopening occurred too quickly. There were segments of the state reopening for business when the science of the virus wasn’t as well understood. Residents’ safety should be the top priority when any future decisions are made.
Rep. Joe Jett
Jett, a Clay County native, said he’s mindful that many in his district are “anti-mask” and “anti-vaccine.” The state’s and specifically Hutchinson’s response to the crisis was adequate given the circumstances, he said. Jett supports the re-opening of the state and acknowledged that many in his district are weary.
For much of the spring and summer in 2020, the federal government, including the Center for Disease Control and the White House, gave conflicting guidelines that left the state largely on its own when it comes to developing public policies for an unprecedented crisis.
Hutchinson skated a fine line between violating civil liberties and keeping the public safe from the virus, he said. There was no “playbook” on how to handle a modern pandemic, and Jett said he’s in no position to “armchair quarterback” any of the actions taken by Hutchinson or other state agencies.
“It’s hard for me to criticize the governor or anybody that’s dealing with it. There’s no road map. There’s no flow chart for this,” he said.
Sen. Dan Sullivan
A vocal critic of the process used to make statewide mandates, Sullivan said he was pleased that Act 403 was passed. Sullivan said he doesn’t want to be critical of any of the specific public health directives that were issued, but he thinks the process should include more than the governor’s office and government agencies.
A lot of these decisions should have been made by individuals and communities, he said. It’s possible COVID-19 could surge again or another health emergency could grip the state.
The legislature will now be a partner in the process of crafting statewide responses.
“We now have a much better process for making decisions on how to respond,” Sullivan said.