A legislative panel on Thursday authorized the Bureau of Legislative Research to spend more than $170,000 to make a conference room on the fourth floor of the Multi-Agency Complex -- immediately west of the state Capitol -- suitable for a House committee to use in next year's regular session, in the event the covid-19 pandemic continues.
The panel also authorized the bureau to spend nearly $400,000 to upgrade the bureau's audio and visual systems for two rooms on the fifth floor of the Multi-Agency Complex.
It appears as if many of the state House of Representatives' committee rooms are not large enough in terms of seating to accommodate the members and social-distancing needs, as well as members of the public, based on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Department of Health guidance, said Marty Garrity, director of the Bureau of Legislative Research.
House leaders are looking at using committee Rooms A and B on the fifth floor of the complex and a conference room on the fourth floor -- which some officials call Room C -- of that building, as well as Room 151 in the Capitol as much as possible for committee meetings in the regular session to allow for social distancing, said House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado.
Garrity said the fourth-floor conference room needs to be outfitted with video streaming equipment, a video production system, microphones, projectors and speakers in order to provide for transparency to the public.
This project would cost $176,302 through Jay Stanley & Associates of North Little Rock, she told the Legislative Council's Executive Subcommittee. In addition, the bureau would purchase streaming services through Sliq for $3,750.
The House Management Committee has asked to tap the bureau's $205,000 annual allocation for committee room expenses to cover the cost of converting the fourth-floor room, Garrity said prior to the Executive Subcommittee authorizing this expenditure with conditions proposed by a Legislative Council co-chairman, Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage.
Wardlaw said he wants to limit the elevators to only lawmakers or staff members between the fifth and fourth floors, and for the conference room entrance for the public and lobbyists to be on the fourth floor, "so they walk straight in."
The roughly 2,600-square-foot conference room is "sandwiched" between space used by a state agency, and has been booked by numerous people ranging from the Department of Education to the Bureau of Legislative Research, according to Department of Transformation and Shared Services spokeswoman Alex Johnston.
The Division of Building Authority has sent out notice that it won't be taking reservations on that room after Thanksgiving until the regular session ends because the Bureau of Legislative Research will be using that room, Johnston said.
The bureau also plans to have plastic-glass partitions installed in Room A in advance of the legislative budget hearings starting Oct. 11 and the regular session and require social distancing in that room, Garrity said.
If Room B in the Multi-Agency Complex "were to be used as an overflow room" for lawmakers from Room A, "there is not interaction between the microphones, so we were requested to look at the possibility of getting the microphone systems to be integrated so any members, who were sitting in committee Room B, could use their microphones and ask questions and hear everything that comes from committee Room A," she said.
That option would cost about $25,163 through Jay Stanley & Associates, Garrity said before the Executive Subcommittee authorized bureau staff members to proceed with this option.
The Executive Subcommittee also authorized the bureau to spend about $22,000 to purchase 86 plastic-glass partitions, or three-sided cubicles, to safeguard lawmakers in Room A of the Multi-Agency Complex.
Garrity said bureau officials realized there had been some miscommunication with Southern Office Services in North Little Rock and the firm came back with a revised quote of $34,978 instead its original quote of about $23,000 through "no fault of theirs" to provide the partitions.
"However in the meantime, Ace Glass came and provided us with a quote for the same work ... and they have come in at $22,470, which is a difference of about $12,000," she said. "I wanted to bring to this body the clarification on the two quotes that we now have received and request that we are authorized to move forward with Ace Glass rather than Southern Offices Services."
Last week, the House Management Committee authorized House staff members to buy partitions to protect representatives and employees in the chamber and to buy a system that would allow remote voting within the Capitol complex.
The Senate Efficiency Committee is exploring the option of buying partitions for that the chamber.
In other action, the Executive Subcommittee also authorized the bureau to spend nearly $400,000 to upgrade its audio and visual systems in Rooms A and B in the Multi-Agency Complex.
Garrity said the complex's fifth floor was renovated for committee rooms about 10 years ago and the current audio and sound systems were installed at that time.
"We are having a hard time getting replacement parts [and] service is becoming more difficult and after 10 years, it's in my opinion, refresh the system," she said.
Jay Stanley & Associates provided a quote of $398,675 and the firm did the same work a decade ago, Garrity said.
"This is to retrofit the system, bring it up to date with 2020 technologies, new televisions. It encompasses everything."
Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, asked if there are any other companies that could provide similar systems.
Garrity said that there might be three providers in the country.
"I know that when the Senate looked at renovating their rooms recently, we looked again at any other providers," she said.
"This is a very niche business. They are local here in North Little Rock which is nice. They are very responsive to our service requests and needs, but it's very difficult to find companies to do this kind of work.," Garrity said.
The Arkansas Times blog on Thursday reported on a memo from Kenny Hall, executive vice president of Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, to potential legislative event sponsors about legislative leaders' suspension for now of all 2021 planned activities.
Shepherd said legislative leaders have advised the Chamber, which handles the scheduling among groups for the "planned activities," financed by lobbyists, that invite the entire Legislature, House, Senate or legislative committees, "as things stand right now, that's not something that we would be doing in the next session.
"Now things could improve," he said in an interview.
"But basically we wanted to make sure that there was a line of communication there and that the different groups that have often planned activities ... know as of now we wouldn't want them to be spending money or doing things thinking it is going to happen," Shepherd said.
"Now, we can't control things outside of the Legislature as far as if somebody wanted to have some event or otherwise," he said. "But as far as these planned activities, at this point those are on hold."
Legislative leaders will continue to evaluate that decision as they get closer to the start of the regular session, Shepherd said.
Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, said that "of course, that doesn't limit any member if they want have something out there on their own.
"It is just going to be the stuff that we normally organize and put on the calendars, we possibly may not do that," he said in an interview.
Hickey, who is the Senate president pro tempore-designate, said, "We have been working ... for months, just trying to make sure we are going to have a session that is smooth and we have thought through everything that we can, and we have everything in writing."
Legislative leaders want to make sure that lawmakers are going to be safe and the public is going to be allowed to participate in the regular session, he said.