On Tuesday (Aug. 3), Governor Asa Hutchinson put out the call for legislators to meet in a special session beginning Wednesday at 10 a.m.
Hutchinson is calling on the Arkansas General Assembly to amend Act 1002 – a law passed earlier this year – that bans statewide mask mandates. Specifically, he wants the legislature to create an exemption that will give public school boards flexibility to issue mask mandates to protect school children who are under 12 years old and are not eligible for a vaccine.
“We do have a vulnerable group that is not eligible for the vaccine…the reason for this is they are required to go to school. Secondly, we understand the value of in-classroom instruction and we want those children to be as safe as possible,” Gov. Hutchinson said.
When asked in a follow-up question, he made it clear this will not apply to high school and college students. Hutchinson reiterated there will not be a statewide mask mandate; he simply wants local control on the issue. He said there won’t be a statewide vaccine mandate either.
In a related note, attorney Tom Mars filed a lawsuit on Tuesday contending that Act 1002 is unconstitutional.
The governor will also ask lawmakers to affirm the decision made by the Arkansas Department of Workforce Service’s director to end the state’s participation in federal unemployment benefit programs: Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), Pandemic Extended Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) programs.
“That was paying them [unemployed workers] $300 a week to stay out of the workforce. This made no sense and we ended it,” Hutchinson said.
“Since that time, the number of Arkansans registering for work increased by 28 percent, employers are hiring, and people are returning to work. Nearly 160,000 Arkansas jobs have been filled since the announcement and these numbers come from workforce services.”
Last week, a Pulaski County judge ruled the state did not have the authority to opt out of the federal program.
“Even though that’s on appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court, I did add one additional item on the call which will be to provide legislative clarification that the intent of the legislature gave authority to opt out of federal optional programs,” the governor added.
The circumstances surrounding the governor’s call for a special session could enter unchartered territory, especially in recent years. Legislative sources suggest the necessary votes to alter Act 1002 aren’t firm. A simple majority in both chambers – 18 in the Senate and 51 in the House – will be necessary to change the mask mandate ban, but no one believes the votes are there for passage as of Tuesday.
“In my opinion, we are a significant ways away from even having the 18 votes,” said Senate President Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana. “At this time, there is not a consensus to do that.”
Typically, Gov. Hutchinson has only issued a special session call when a majority of legislators are on board with a solution. Hutchinson has said that, under a new law passed this year, he is involving lawmakers to help develop a solution after they changed state policy to require their participation in the pandemic response.
Lawmakers met in a committee of the whole on Tuesday and did not reverse the governor’s new pandemic emergency status. No resolution to reverse that decision was introduced. Hutchinson instituted the emergency to address the strains being placed on hospitals across Arkansas.
Conservative legislators have suggested that once they are in special session they may use a mechanism to allow themselves to expand the call from the governor to consider other bills not germane to the special session’s narrow focus.
Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, said he wants to ban critical race theory from being taught in public schools, although widespread instances of its teaching have not been identified.
All of this swirling political theater was the backdrop for a sobering day of new coronavirus statistics. Health officials disclosed 2,343 new cases since yesterday. Additionally, there have been 30 more hospitalizations, 10 more patients on ventillators, and 16 new deaths, bringing the death toll to over 6,200.
The governor hyped new statistics that show more than 30,000 vaccine doses were administered in the last day and 14 counties have reached a 50% vaccination rate.
Editor’s note: Marine Glisovic, senior political reporter for KATV News, contributed to this report.