The Arkansas Legislative Council's executive subcommittee has authorized the purchase of 86 plexiglass partitions to safeguard lawmakers in a meeting room in the Multi-Agency Complex west of the state Capitol, starting in this fall's budget hearings, legislative staff told a Senate committee on Tuesday.
There are 81 members comprising the Legislative Council and Joint Budget Committee that meet for budget hearings and only 88 seats in committee Room A in the Multi-Agency Complex, commonly referred to as "Big MAC."
There are 60 members on the Legislative Council that meets between legislative sessions and "you have seen the social distancing we have for Legislative Council" meetings, Bureau of Legislative Research Director Marty Garrity told the Senate Efficiency Committee.
With a larger group attending budget hearings, "that was not going to be possible," Garrity said of social distancing.
The budget hearings start Oct 13, and are held in advance of the Arkansas General Assembly's regular session that begins in January.
With lawmakers' decision to purchase partitions for the committee room, House and Senate officials are also exploring whether to purchase similar dividers for their respective chambers.
Garrity said the Legislative Council's executive subcommittee on Monday decided to purchase the plexiglass partitions for the committee room for $22,625.65 through Southern Office Services in North Little Rock. She said the bureau contacted several vendors and that was the best price that it received.
Subcommittee members "felt it was important that all members be in committee Room A with their budget books to be able to look at what is going on now, what happened last year, and this was the best option," she said.
In addition, Garrity said "we are working on a direct [video] feed from committee Room A to committee Room B" in the Multi-Agency Complex.
"They wanted me to pursue that option just to have committee Room B be an overflow for committee Room A," she said.
There are 38 alternates to the Joint Budget Committee and they will have to sit in either the public seating or in committee Room B in the Multi-Agency Complex, Garrity said.
The plexiglass partitions in Room A will be "three sided in the front and it is going to extend beyond the chair," she said. "It is still going to allow for members to walk behind it."
Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, said that "it is like you have your chair in a little cubicle."
Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, asked "if we are inside these cubicles, will we be able to take our masks off, so we don't have to wear our mask and sit inside the cubicle."
Garrity replied that "it is my understanding that this is in addition to the mask."
"It is another method of trying to stop the transmittal of covid-19," she said.
Afterward, Garrity said whether lawmakers will be required to wear masks while inside their plexiglass cubicles in Room A "will be taken up" by Arkansas Legislative Council and Joint Budget Committee.
She told the Senate committee that the plexiglass partitions in Room A of the Multi-Agency Complex will be temporary.
The discussion about the Bureau of Legislative Research purchasing plexiglass partitions for committee Room A in the Multi-Agency Complex eventually led the Senate Efficiency Committee on Tuesday to direct Senate Director Ann Cornwell to look into the possibility of purchasing plexiglass partitions to allow all 35 senators to meet in the Senate's chambers.
In a special session and fiscal session earlier this year, the 35-member state Senate met with about 20 members spread apart in its chambers in the state Capitol and the other 15 in the Senate galleries overlooking the chamber and elsewhere.
During these sessions, the 100-member House met in the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's Jack Stephens Center instead of the House chambers in the state Capitol in order to maintain distance between members.
"There is something about being in the gallery where you don't feel like you are participating the same [as being in the Senate chamber]," said Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Berryville.
"If you can do anything to keep everybody in the same room, it would really be beneficial to the constituents that are represented," he said.
House Chief of Staff Roy Ragland said he has a meeting scheduled today to get a bid about the House purchasing plexiglass partitions for representatives in its chamber. He said the House Management Committee will make the final decision on whether to implement that option.
At the outset of the Senate Efficiency Committee's meeting, Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, said that the Legislature should approach next year's session with caution.
"We need to set a goal of having zero infections of staff members or people who participate in the process during the [regular] session.
"So many Legislatures have failed at this. We need to to try to set a goal of doing better than that and it is going to take a lot of work between now and then.
Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, agreed.
"I just don't want us to be the Legislature that has 26 people infected and then we just simply can't do our jobs," she said.
Amid the covid-19 pandemic, Garrity said there are various options being discussed for the regular session including limiting the number of bills on a committee's agenda to between 10 to 15 for each meeting and providing the public with 24 hours notice to show up to testify on a bill.
The Senate Efficiency Committee decided to refer this option to the Senate Rules Committee.
State Capitol Police Chief Darrel Hedden told the Senate Efficiency Committee that the Capitol building is "full-blown, wall-to-wall people" during regular sessions, and it would create a challenging situation if the covid-19 emergency continues.
"My idea is to slow down the process, deliberately slow the process down," he said.
Dwight Southerland, a deputy secretary of state, said crowd sizes could be controlled in the state Capitol by limiting the number of bills discussed in a committee meeting each day.
Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, expressed concerns about the legislative process being rushed.
"We have a general session once every two years [and] it is our job to legislate," she said. "I don't want to rush through that process [to hastily end the regular session] because we slow things down to only hear a certain number of bills a day.
"I am happy with us doing that. I think it makes sense. But we need to include in that conversation what it looks like to extend the session longer than normal."
Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, said the Legislature might consider reinstating a bill filing deadline for the 2021 regular session, "so that way we do get to a conclusion."
Cornwell said lawmakers should be encouraged to pre-file more bills in advance of the regular session to get more non-controversial bills through the Legislature earlier in the regular session than usual. The pre-filing of bills begins Nov. 16.