When the Arkansas General Assembly convenes at noon today during a once-in-a-century pandemic, the first-day ceremonies will be the same, but they'll be taking place along with health screenings, one-way hall traffic and limited seating.
As new lawmakers are seated and sworn in, the House is limiting space in the gallery overlooking its chamber. New members will each be allowed to have one family member in the gallery. For the Senate, family members of new lawmakers will enter one by one as the oath of office is administered.
"As best as we can, we're trying to handle things as normal as possible, but undoubtedly, because of the virus, it is going to look a little different," House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, said.
In the Arkansas Legislature, regular sessions begin the second Monday in January in odd-numbered years, taking place after general elections in November. Besides resulting in new and amended state laws, regular sessions also include the passage of funding bills and decisions on proposed constitutional amendments to refer to voters.
In even-numbered years, lawmakers meet in fiscal sessions to approve funding bills. The first fiscal session was in 2010. Last year's fiscal session took place in April, in the early days of the pandemic.
The Arkansas Constitution limits regular sessions to no more than 60 days -- counting days off, including weekends -- unless extended to up to 75 days by a two-thirds vote of each chamber. Members may also agree to meet past 75 days by a three-fourths vote.
The 2019 session began Jan. 14 and wrapped up April 24. In recent years, the longest regular session was that of the 89th General Assembly in 2013, which began Jan. 14 and did not officially adjourn until May.
So far, more than 180 pieces of legislation -- both bills and resolutions -- have been pre-filed ahead of the session. More than 200 pieces of legislation were pre-filed before the 2019 session.
Overall, more than 6,800 bills and resolutions were filed during the 2019 session across both chambers.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Friday that he expects the number of bills filed this session to be lower than in previous years because of the pandemic.
"We're going to deal with hopefully the most serious subjects," Hutchinson said, noting that lawmakers are working to do their business safely in a group atmosphere. "People will be more careful about the bills that they file."
The governor said his office will likely have fewer ceremonial bill signings with large groups of people in the conference room. He also eschewed town hall-style meetings to advance his agenda ahead of the 2021 session.
Sen. Jimmy Hickey, a Republican from Texarkana who will be the Senate president pro tempore, said in an interview Thursday that he believed the pandemic and the related public safety rules would result in a more "structured" session. He said the pandemic could result in bills inspired by covid-19, such as scope-of-practice laws.
"It'll be what it'll be," he said.
In addition to the usual ceremonial rites of a new session, lawmakers have several coronavirus-related rules, proposed by legislative leadership and the secretary of state's office, to consider.
Lawmakers, staff members and the public are to wear face coverings, with exceptions for speaking into a microphone or consuming food or drink.
For committee meetings, only people who are testifying on a bill listed on the agenda will be allowed into the committee room or the holding area outside it.
Hickey said the Senate will consider the rules today, and a House spokeswoman said the House Rules Committee is expected to consider the rules on Tuesday.
The Capitol building itself will only be open to people with state business, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office said Friday.
Marty Garrity, director of the Bureau of Legislative Research, said the House and Senate have defined state business as people who are going to a committee meeting or visiting with a constitutional officer.
The bureau has hired two temporary employees to ask people entering the building about which committee meeting they are going to or constitutional officer they are meeting with, Garrity said. Those employees will be in place as long as the Legislature is meeting during a state of public health emergency.
Print Headline: Covid-19 on minds as session to begin