Lawmakers considered eight more proposed Congressional District maps Monday (Sept. 27), including two that would move Sebastian County to the 4th District and one that would bring Pope County into the 2nd by moving Benton and Bryant into the 4th.
Members of the House and Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committees are considering changes to the state’s four Congressional Districts because of population changes recorded by the U.S. Census.
Lawmakers also discussed vaccine mandates for nursing students and members of the military in preparation for reconvening in their regular session Wednesday, Sept. 29.
Among the proposals were two by Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Little Rock, and Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, that would move Sebastian County to the 4th District.
Johnson’s Senate Bill 729 would move Sebastian County, which currently is split, into the 4th District. Fort Smith currently is in the 3rd. The 3rd would no longer split Crawford County with the 4th District and would encompass more rural counties to its east. Among its other changes would be moving Pope County from the 3rd to the 2nd District and White County from the 2nd to the 1st.
Johnson said his map would keep counties together, simplify ballots, and ensure a mix of urban and rural voters.
Like Johnson’s map, Meeks’ House Bill 1966 would move Sebastian County to the 4th District. He said each Congressional District should have a major city.
Earlier, Sen. Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, had argued that Sebastian County wants to be in one district – the 3rd – rather than being split into two. He said a divided county gets less representation. He read a letter from the Fort Smith Regional Council saying it wants Fort Smith to stay in the 3rd and not be divided. Rep. Cindy Crawford, R-Fort Smith, said Sebastian County must be in the same district and must be in the 3rd. Sebastian County Judge David Hudson also testified in favor of Sebastian County being entirely located in the 3rd District.
They made their comments in response to two similar proposed maps by Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, and Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, that moved Pope County into the 2nd District but left Sebastian County split. Dotson and Davis presented their bills together.
Dotson’s House Bill 1963 would accomplish this in part by splitting Saline County in two just north of Interstate 30, with Benton and Bryant moving into the 4th.
That proposal raised objections from several lawmakers, including Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, and Rep. Lanny Fite, R-Benton. They and several other lawmakers argued that Benton and Bryant have more in common with Little Rock and the rest of the 2nd District. Fite noted that Benton and Bryant are in the same metropolitan planning area as Little Rock.
Davis’ Senate Bill 725 was similar except it would split Pulaski County instead of Saline, with North Little Rock and the northern part of Pulaski County moving into the 4th.
House Bill 1964 by Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, would move all of Sebastian County into the 3rd, creating what he called an “I-49 corridor district.” It also would put all of Alma into the 3rd. It’s currently split between the 3rd and the 4th.
His map would move Pope County to the 4th, stretch the district up to the Missouri county line, and add Yell County to the 2nd while moving the eastern part of Pulaski County into the 1st.
House Bill 1965 by Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, created a map with a 51% minority population by including part of Pulaski County along with southern and eastern Arkansas in the 2nd District.
Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, would create a district with a slightly more than 50% minority population. Her Senate Bill 728 would include Little Rock and the state’s southern Delta counties. She said that 10 Southern states have at least one majority-minority district.
Sen. Greg Leding, R-Fayetteville, presented a map drawn by a Fayetteville student.
Lawmakers also discussed vaccine mandates in preparation for the legislative session where it could become an issue. Parent Chad Bond testified that his daughter, a University of Central Arkansas nursing student, is required to be vaccinated for her clinicals and has not been given an exemption or accommodation. After 2.5 years of schooling, she may have to withdraw from college. The Senate chairman of the committee, Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, read a letter from UCA’s Jeremy Gillam, director of governmental affairs and external relations, saying the college has two locations that accept unvaccinated students, and they give preference to their own internal students.
Michael Keck, UAMS institutional relations liaison, said UAMS students are not required to be vaccinated in accordance with a state law passed earlier this year. He said 78% of the university’s nursing students have been vaccinated.
Committee members also heard from Gen. Kendall Penn, Arkansas National Guard adjutant general, and two of his staff members. Jim Hudson, deputy director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, said employees who refuse to be vaccinated in workplaces that require it would not have a basis for an unemployment claim unless they have a religious or medical exemption.