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story.lead_photo.caption The Arkansas Capitol is shown in this 2015 file photo. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

After defeating an attempt to remove the coronavirus-related requirement, the Arkansas Legislative Council and the Joint Budget Committee on Tuesday approved rules to require lawmakers to wear masks, except under certain conditions, in order to participate in budget hearings for state agencies.

Lawmakers started budget hearings Tuesday in preparation for the regular legislative session, which starts Jan. 11. The hearings are scheduled to last until Nov. 12. In the regular session, the Legislature will set budgets for fiscal 2022, which begins July 1.

The House's members on both panels voted 19-7 and senators on the panels voted 18-1 to approve three pages of proposed rules for the hearings, according to Bureau of Legislative Research records, including a rule on mask wearing.

That rule states that "[i]n order to participate in the presession budget hearings, a member shall wear a mask covering his or her nose at all times, except when he or she" is speaking into a microphone, at least 6 feet from others or drinking.

"The co-chairs may refuse to recognize a member who is not wearing a mask in accordance with these rules," according to the proposal.

Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, made a motion to remove the mask-wearing rule because he said it is unnecessary.

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, asked why Dotson wanted to strip that rule, because, she said, "This just seems like a common-sense way to make sure we're all safe."

With lawmakers surrounded by plastic-glass barriers on three sides in their seats in the Multi-Agency Complex west of the Capitol, Dotson said, "Sitting here in this glass cubicle, I feel like we have taken fairly serious precautions to ensure that members are as safe as possible.

"I believe just about everybody within eyesight that I can see through ... glass are wearing their masks when they are up and about and moving around outside of the glass cubicle," he said.

"I just don't feel this is a necessary thing and members feel free to wear your masks at will. I would encourage it," Dotson said.

Elliott asked Dotson whether he believes that it's not important for lawmakers wear masks if they are not maintaining 6 feet of distance and not sitting in their cubicles.

Dotson said wearing masks is "a common-sense practice.

"Everybody is aware of the reason for masks and, as freedom-loving Americans, I think we are responsible enough to take precautions and we have done so in this body and evidenced by looking around. You can see that quite abundantly obviously we are taking the necessary precautions," he said. "This additional rule being in our rules is a mandate I don't think is necessary."

Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, said lawmakers have worn masks and taken safety precautions at committee meetings he has attended.

"I think we can get by without this [proposed rule] because technically, I have got a drink sitting here. I'm drinking, so I don't want to get into grade-school stuff," he said. "I think we can as a body manage this without this rule."

But Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, said the proposed rules are reasonable and he didn't understand the logic and the rationale that was used to argue against them.

"We say on one hand that everybody is being responsible and on the other hand we don't need a rule to make everybody be responsible, so, if the rule is not going to have any impact because everybody is already doing it, then what's the issue with the rule?"

"I would contend that it is necessary, if for no other reason, to set an example of leadership in the state that it's important to keep each other safe," Hendren said. "We are going to set the tone for how seriously we are taking this by how we conduct our meetings."

Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, said Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson's mask mandate is in effect in the Multi-Agency Complex as much as it is anywhere across the state, so the proposed rule was unnecessary.

In mid-July, Hutchinson issued an executive order directing the state Department of Health to issue a statewide requirement for most Arkansans to wear masks in public places if they can't keep the 6-foot distance.

Bentley said, "We already have a mandate in effect. We are here. We have got this cubicle between us to protect us, so I just think [the proposed rules] are totally not needed."

But Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, said he has a high-risk child in his home and his family's members do everything they can to try to protect the child and make sure that "we don't bring anything home."

"I want to participate and I want to be part of this process," he said, but he's worried about lawmakers becoming lackadaisical in wearing masks without a rule in place.

"It is clear from some of the comments there is varying opinion about what we should or should not do regarding masks," Dismang said. "I would fine either way, but I do believe this just helps create a standard that we are all going to be held to, regardless of what our individual viewpoints may be on masks or the virus or whatever it may be."

"I want to participate. I want to be able to be here, but I don't want someone else's viewpoints to prevent me from being able to do that because of my particular situation," he said.

House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, said the primary purpose for the mask rule is in case that there is an outbreak of the coronavirus in the hearings, so it's likely that "only the individuals to either side [of an infected member] would be required to be quarantined.

"If we don't have this type of protocol in place, then there is a higher likelihood that [the Health Department] would maybe take a position that more members should be quarantined," he said. "So this rule, and, as far as other discussions that we move into session, it's more about trying to protect ourselves from the standpoint of being able to conduct our business into the future."

Shepherd said the rule had caveats and "the way it is structured is not exactly just a hard and fast rule.

"But I think that it is important to consider this is about hopefully being able to maintain a significant number of members who are able to conduct business," he said. Members afterward rejected in a voice vote Dotson's motion to remove the rule governing masks and then approved the rules package.

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