Arkansas lawmakers meet at arena over coronavirus concerns
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A basketball arena was transformed into Arkansas’ House chamber due to coronavirus concerns as lawmakers met Thursday to address a budget shortfall the state faces because of the outbreak.
The House and Senate quickly advanced a plan to allow Gov. Asa Hutchinson to tap into the state’s surplus because of the $353 million shortfall. Legislative leaders say they hope to wrap up the special session early on Saturday.
Arkansas has had at least 349 cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus, and three deaths. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, which can include fever and cough but also milder cases of pneumonia, sometimes requiring hospitalization. The risk of death is greater for older adults and people with other health problems.
Hutchinson has said the surplus money is needed to avoid cuts to essential services, including the Department of Health, and for other needs during the outbreak.
“The legislation on your desk will allow the state to move quickly to respond to hospital needs, hospitals that need ventilators, to nurses and first responders who need more protective masks and the needs of our dedicated state employees on the front lines of this fight,” Hutchinson told House members.
The House gave an initial endorsement to the proposal to move the state’s $173 million surplus to a “COVID-19 Rainy Day Fund” that Hutchinson could access with the approval of legislative leaders. The Senate also advanced the measure to a floor vote after rejecting a proposal to require a legislative subcommittee approve of the fund’s use.
The 100-member House moved to the Jack Stephens Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, with members sitting spaced at least six feet apart from one another in the stands of the 5,600-seat arena. Members, staff and press were screened before they could enter the arena, and provided small bottles of hand sanitizer.
The 35-member Senate met at the Capitol, but it would only allow 20 members on the floor and it moved some to the galleries overlooking the chamber. Neither chamber allowed the general public inside, but they broadcast their proceedings online. Both chambers approved rules temporarily allowing members to vote by proxy.
Lawmakers said the restrictions on their proceedings were needed to safely take up the state’s business at a time when businesses and schools have been shuttered throughout Arkansas. The state’s public schools have been closed until April 17, and officials have prohibited sit-down service at restaurants and bars. The state has also closed gyms, barbershops and hair salons, and has banned social gatherings of more than 10 people in confined spaces.
“We’ve got to set an example for the rest of the state,” Rep. Jon Eubanks said. “We can’t ask these businesses to close down, then we stand shoulder to shoulder.”
The changes and the admonitions to stay at least six feet away from one another were nonetheless a culture shock for legislators.
“When you’re in any group that’s collegial, your instinct is to shake hands or do a side hug and to gather up and start talking about things,” Rep. Tippi McCullough said. “It’s very strange.”
House and Senate leaders have not decided how to handle the next legislative session, set to begin April 8, focused on the state’s budget for the coming fiscal year.
“I would like, as best as possible, for it to be business as usual, but it looks like we’re going to be dealing with some challenging conditions for the foreseeable future,” House Speaker Matthew Shepherd said. ___