The Arkansas General Assembly is set to reconvene today to tackle redrawing the state's four congressional districts, but without a clear consensus across both chambers on what that map will look like.
Legislative leaders on Monday issued a proclamation to call lawmakers back into session starting at 10 a.m. today. Lawmakers met for 108 days in their biennial regular session from January to April this year, but recessed to wait for delayed data from the 2020 U.S. census to use in redrawing the districts.
At least 18 proposals had been filed as of Tuesday evening, and some lawmakers said they expected to see more.
In the Arkansas Legislature, the House and Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committees are responsible for hearing about the bills that would redraw the district lines for U.S. representatives. The committees met jointly three times over the past week to hear and discuss the proposals.
Senate committee Chairman Jason Rapert, R-Conway, said there could be a consensus around one of the bills that has been filed so far, while House committee Chairman Dwight Tosh, R-Jonesboro, said there wasn't one yet.
"I think there were several bills that were presented that has a lot of merit in them," Tosh said. "Let's just see what happens."
Rapert said he believed, based on feedback from other legislators, that there was a consensus building around a bill but declined to say which one.
"One of the bills that has been presented to the committee seems to have consensus and support," he said.
Several lawmakers on the House and Senate committees said they liked Senate Bill 725 by Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, which adds Pope and Cleburne counties to the 2nd Congressional District while splitting Pulaski County between the 2nd District and the 4th District.
Davis said she planned to file an updated version of the bill that includes five members of the Senate committee as co-sponsors, giving it support from more than half of the eight-member panel.
The 2020 census showed that Pulaski County remained the state's largest, with its population growing by 3% to 399,125. The county contains the state's largest city and its capital, Little Rock. It is also more racially diverse than the rest of the state, one of a few counties that consistently votes for Democratic candidates in the deep red state.
Northwest Arkansas experienced substantial growth in the past decade, with its two largest counties growing by 105,800 people between April 1, 2010, and April 1, 2020. Fayetteville in Washington County became the state's second-largest city, surpassing Fort Smith in Sebastian County.
Davis said she knew that Pope County, where she lives, would have to leave the 3rd Congressional District because of that population growth and wanted to see it somewhere with similar interests.
Senate committee Vice Chairman Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, said he didn't think there was a consensus, but that there were concepts and ideas that had support from legislators. Those include trying not to split Sebastian County between the 3rd District and the 4th District, which it is now.
He said Pulaski County is "the natural one to split," assuming that area will continue to grow as it did in the past decade and added that keeping the four districts close to the ideal population is a priority among legislators.
There are 3,011,524 people living in Arkansas, according to the latest U.S. census numbers, making 752,881 the ideal population for each district.
On the House side, several lawmakers expressed support for House Bill 1959 by Rep. Nelda Speaks, R-Mountain Home, because it keeps all 75 counties whole, but said there wasn't a clear front-runner.
HB1959 puts Sebastian County completely in the 3rd District. It also moves Van Buren County to the 4th District, but Speaks said she planned to file a version this morning that would keep Van Buren County in the 2nd District while removing a southeastern portion of Pulaski County.
Rep. Jack Ladyman, R-Jonesboro, said Tuesday that some lawmakers who have presented redistricting bills were meeting to try to combine the best features of each into a single bill. He said the areas of interest are rural southeastern counties that may move from the 1st District to the 4th District and placing Madison and Sebastian counties in the 3rd District. He said a bill with a number of sponsors likely will be filed today.
"I don't think there's one that we can say, 'Hey, that's the one that's going to pass,'" he said. "I think there's a lot of work yet to do."
Ladyman said most legislators don't want to split any counties, but if they did, they would most likely divide Pulaski County because it has the largest population and is in the center of the state.
"The goal is to split no counties. That's what most people want to do," he said. "If we have to, Pulaski County is most likely."
He said community members from Saline and Sebastian counties had come out "in force" to express their opposition to their counties being divided.
In addition to SB725, Davis and Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, have another bill that would split Saline County. That bill was presented to the committees Monday and it drew objections from lawmakers.
House committee Vice Chairman Justin Gonzales, R-Okolona, said he planned to file a bill that would split Pulaski County along the Arkansas River that divides Little Rock and North Little Rock.
Rep. Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne, said she didn't think there was much of a consensus yet, but if some members combined their bills and made some adjustments "we could get there."
She said Speaks' bill probably has the most support and that the map legislators pass likely will be relatively close to where the lines are now.
Gray noted that the bill passed in the House may not be the same as the one passed in the Senate.
"We'll probably have different consensus bills and have to meld the two," she said.
Democratic lawmakers, including Sens. Clarke Tucker and Joyce Elliott, both from Little Rock, have objected to splitting Pulaski County, saying it could split up a community of interest.
Though Democratic lawmakers have filed several redistricting proposals, Tucker said he did not think any map drawn by a member of the minority party would gain the support of the majority-GOP Legislature. Tucker is the only Democrat on the Senate committee and there are two Democrats on the 20-member House committee.
This year marks the first time Republicans will have drawn the congressional district lines since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era; Democrats had a majority in the Arkansas Legislature during redistricting 10 years ago. The GOP gained control of both chambers for the first time in the 2012 election.
Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Ozark, on Tuesday filed Senate Bill 731 that would bar an employer from requiring disclosure of a person's vaccination status for covid-19, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 or any of its mutations. It also would bar retaliating against anyone for exercising his or her right to privacy in an employment setting.
Under the bill, an employee or a person who is injured by an employer in violation of the bill's provisions would have the remedies and procedures available under the Arkansas Civil Rights Act of 1993.
Senate Bill 731 would allow the state Department of Finance and Administration to create a grant program with distribution of covid-19 relief funds or funds received under the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to provide restitution to people injured by a violation of SB731.
Ballinger filed his bill a day after Garner filed Senate Bill 730, which would authorize unemployment benefits for anyone terminated solely because of a refusal to be vaccinated against covid-19 or its variants.
House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, and Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, on Monday signed a proclamation calling the Legislature to reconvene in regular session starting today to conduct business related to only considering vetoes, correcting errors and oversights; completing its work on congressional redistricting; considering legislation related to the coronavirus public health emergency and distribution of covid-19 relief funds; and considering the need for further extension of the regular session.
At his weekly news conference, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he believes the extended regular session under the Arkansas Constitution "can only be brought together to consider redistricting matters."
"That's under our constitution, so bills that are filed separately from redistricting in my view is not a proper purview of the General Assembly in an extended regular session," the Republican governor said.
Afterward, Hutchinson explained in a written statement that "The Arkansas Constitution limits meetings of the General Assembly to a regular biennial session that can only be extended to finish legislative work.
"The legislature has defined their work as considering legislation related to the COVID-19 public health emergency and distribution of COVID-19 relief funds," he said. "The COVID-19 public health emergency expired on September 27 [Monday]."
But Ballinger said, "There is still a federal [public health] emergency in place, so that argument is unfounded," and his bill deals with the distribution of covid-19 relief funds.
"It is 100% consistent with the resolution," he said.
Garner said Hutchinson's argument is "a stretch legally and constitutionally and otherwise."
He said he expects to run his SB730 in the Senate this week because he can't think of a more covid-19 related issue than unemployment benefits for people who are fired for refusing to be vaccinated.
Ballinger, Garner and Hutchinson are attorneys.
Dotson on Tuesday filed House Bill 1967 that would cut the state's individual income-tax rate from 5.9% to 5.4% on Jan. 1, 2022, and further to 4.9% on Jan. 1, 2023. Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, is the Senate sponsor of the bill.
Dotson said he filed the bill to encourage discussion about reducing the top rate to 4.9% as well as to get an estimate from the state Department of Finance and Administration about how much his bill would reduce state general revenue.
Hutchinson and legislative leaders have been weighing proposals to trim the top rate to 5.5% within a year or two, and then phase in a further cut to 4.9%, and whether to combine low- and middle-income tax tables into one for people with net taxable income of up to $82,000 a year.
Asked if he had a consensus with legislative leaders on a proposed cut and whether a special session on cuts is likely to be in the week before deer-hunting season begins Oct. 16, Hutchinson said, "I assure you, I have no intention of calling a special session during deer season."
"I have learned my lesson on that during the course of life," he added.
But Hutchinson said, "We're still in discussion with the General Assembly, with leadership and others, as to exactly what our tax-cut package would look like, and so there is more to be done there."
"I have not fixed on a date yet until we reach that consensus, so there is just more to be done," he said.
House Revenue and Tax Committee Chairman Joe Jett, R-Success, said Dotson's introduction of HB1967 is irresponsible and aimed at getting Dotson and Hester's names in the newspaper.
They should let the current negotiations between legislative leaders and the governor play out, he said.
In response, Dotson said, "I'll leave it at that."
As far as tax negotiations, Jett said, "We are waiting to see what the governor wants to do" to provide income-tax relief for certain groups such as college students and part-time workers.
Senate Revenue and Tax Committee Chairman Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, said lawmakers are trying to give the biggest cut to middle-income taxpayers because the big complaint is the lion's share of the cut will go to the wealthiest.
Both Sample and Jett said they tentatively expect the special session to begin Oct. 12, but that's up to the governor.