Arkansas lawmakers finally advanced Congressional redistricting map proposals in their respective chambers on Wednesday (Oct. 6). The House passed HB 1982, sponsored by Rep. Nelda Speaks, R-Mountain Home, which splits Sebastian and Pulaski counties.
The Senate passed SB 743, sponsored by Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, which is the same proposal as the House version. Both legislators co-sponsored each other’s measures.
As previously reported, the point of contention for some lawmakers was splitting Pulaski County into three different Congressional districts. Opponents argued it dilutes the African-American communities within the county, while supporters said race wasn’t a factor in the map drawing.
Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, called the map disturbing and “prejudiced, hyper-partisan, and petty.” She stated what was further disturbing was it came from a member of the Pulaski County delegation – highlighting that Sen. English’s district is mostly made up of white Republicans, while hers is mostly made up of black Democrats.
Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, said the legislature was inviting lawsuits to be filed when splitting the county into three and Little Rock into two districts, “We are slicing and dicing the black and brown population.” He speculated that the first piece of evidence that will be used in a lawsuit was the split of Pulaski County.
Sen. Mathew Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, argued for his constituents in Sebastian County who no longer wanted to be split, saying he had to write a letter to 30 people in the county to say, “this body didn’t hear their message.”
Those supporting English’s bill said it wasn’t about race, but instead about population.
During the governor’s weekly press briefing, Gov. Asa Hutchinson commented on redistricting efforts.
“What’s important is not whether or not you divide Pulaski County – but how you divide Pulaski County if you make that decision to do so,” he said. “I would urge them to keep in mind that you do not want to dilute minority representation or influence in Congressional races.”
SB 743 initially failed to make it out of the Senate chamber with just 16 votes, but a motion made by English to expunge the vote was adopted. Upon the second presentation, SB 743 passed with 22 votes, but the emergency clause failed. HB 1982 passed out of the House chamber with 59 votes, but its emergency clause also failed.
Both bills have passed out of the Senate and House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs committees will head to each other’s chambers on Thursday.
COVID-19 RELATED BILL
Also on Wednesday, lawmakers sent SB 739 to the governor’s desk. The measure creates options for an employee to either show a negative test or prove immunity through an antibody test instead of taking a COVID-19 vaccine if an employer mandates it.
The proposal comes without an emergency clause, but a House version of the bill has been sent to the Senate which includes an emergency clause. The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, said the bill was about giving employees in Arkansas a choice.
Editor’s note: Marine Glisovic is a senior political reporter for KATV News.