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Bill to increase Arkansas Legislature's input in state health emergencies, explained

by Nyssa Kruse | March 16, 2021 at 11:07 a.m.
Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, is shown in this file photo.

The state House of Representatives on Monday approved a bill to increase the Arkansas General Assembly’s involvement in executive declarations of public-health emergencies and state public-health directives.

The bill is headed to Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has said he will sign the legislation into law.

Back up: How do emergency declarations and public health directives currently work?

The Arkansas Emergency Services Act of 1973 permits the governor to declare an emergency and "issue executive orders, proclamations and regulations and amend or rescind them" to address the situation. It also says those "executive orders, proclamations and regulations have the force and effect of law."

After the governor declared a state of emergency in March 2020, some of the most prominent executive actions included limitations on restaurant capacity, restrictions on visits to long-term care facilities and rules for large gatherings.

Telehealth, liability protections for businesses, absentee voting and virtual education were all expanded during the pandemic via executive actions.

The Legislature can end a state of emergency “at any time” through a concurrent resolution.

How would the bill change emergency declarations and directives?

Senate Bill 379 would allow the Senate president pro tempore or a majority of the 35 senators to call the body to convene to act on a resolution terminating an emergency.

It also would allow the House to convene at the direction of the speaker or a majority of the 100 state representatives to consider such a resolution.

The bill allows for a resolution of that kind vetoed by the governor to be overridden by a majority vote in both chambers.

Additionally, the bill directs the House and Senate to each meet in a "committee of the whole" within eight business days of an emergency declaration to vote on a resolution terminating the emergency.

The Legislative Council would have the ability to reject extension of an emergency beyond 60 days as well, under the legislation.

Why do some legislators want to change how emergency declarations and directives work?

As the governor has repeatedly extended his emergency declaration during the pandemic, some legislators have sought more input.

"The people's representatives deserve the opportunity to weigh in on these issues," said. Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, a primary sponsor of the bill.

However, many Democrats and some Republicans did not support the bill.

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said she worries about "chaos" resulting if the governor declared a public-health emergency and the Legislative Council rejected that declaration over disagreements about science.

Read more about the bill’s passage from Capitol reporter John Moritz.

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