LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The Arkansas Senate met Thursday morning to review a series of bills put forward in seeming opposition to proposed federal vaccine mandates and continued calls by national and state leaders for people to take COVID-19 vaccines.
Sen. Blake Johnson (R – Corning) presented SB732, which would prohibit intimidating people to take the COVID-19 vaccination. Sen. Jim Hendren (I – Gravette) objected to the relevance of the bill, saying the current session was meant to address redistricting, not the pandemic.
Lt. Governor Tim Griffin then ruled the bills on the calendar being presented in the Senate were germane to the proclamation set forth, claiming the 1980 Riviere v. Wells case allowed the lawmakers to bring up these issues.
Griffin said that “words have meaning” and the proclamation allows for them to consider legislation for the COVID-19 health emergency. He did admit there could be legal challenges to what and how the Senate was going about their business, but those issues did not pertain to the germaneness of taking up the bills.
Hendren then argued the Senate has never done this before and the Constitution and the proclamation are two different things and said taking on bills other than redistricting would be unconstitutional.
Sen. Kim Hammer (R – Benton) said the COVID-19 emergency was a fluid situation and the legislature as a whole should be able to address any pertinent issue, to which Hendren argued a special session should be called to address those issues.
Sen. Trent Garner (R – El Dorado) made the point there are times where the legislature will take recesses such as holiday weekends or spring break and the current situation is no different than when they do that.
Sen. Mark Johnson (R – Little Rock) said the way the business and process is conducted at the Capitol now has evolved from what it has been and no objections have been made to those. He mentioned specifically the creation of the Arkansas Legislative Council and the formation of interim committees to continue doing the business of the state despite not being a full-time legislative body.
Then the motion was made to overturn Griffin’s ruling on being allowed to hear these bills, which failed on an 18-15, with two no votes.
Johnson then presented his bill. The issue was brought up that in a part of his bill, American Rescue Plan funds would help fund unemployment benefits for anyone let go from their job, for refusing a COVID-19 vaccination.
Sen. Jimmy Hickey (R – Texarkana) said the federal government has not approved this type of use for ARP funds.
Sen. Jason Rapert (R – Conway) brought up the issue that ARP funds have been used to coerce people into taking the vaccine in the form of lottery cards, prizes, even for school-aged children.
Sen. Missy Irvin (R – Mountain View) asked if the state would have to replace the ARP funding if those monies were not allowed to be used for this purpose. Johnson then said state unemployment only gives half a salary, and the federal funds would be used to give someone their whole salary while they looked for work.
Sen. Johnathan Dismang (R – Beebe) questioned why the committee voted out all of the bills as a whole with no debate, no public comment. Dismang also inquired about the fact many members were only getting information on these bills for the first time while debating when things should be fleshed out in committee.
Irvin then made the motion to re-refer all the bills back to the Senate Public Health Committee to allow for public comment.
Sen. Alan Clark (R – Lonsdale) mentioned he was not at the committee meeting and his bills passed out. He also wanted assurances the House would be able to take up their bills if they re-referred them.
Hendren commented, “If we’re going to be unconstitutional about it, let’s do it right.” Hendren said he did not believe there was any nefarious intent from the chair of the Senate Public Health Committee.
Sen. Cecile Bledsoe (R – Rogers) commented that she was operating under the impression they were treating this portion of the session like a Special Session.
Garner made a substitute motion to re-refer all bills back to the committee except for SB731 and SB739. That motion inevitably failed on a roll call vote.
The Senate then voted on re-referring all bills back to the committee, which passed on a 19-14 vote with two no votes.
The Senate Public Health Committee will meet on Friday at 8:30 a.m. in room 272 at the State Capitol.