Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Thursday signed legislation into law that aims to reinstate a ban on covid-19 vaccine mandates for public entities ranging from schools to state agencies.
Act 4 and Act 10 of this week's special session bar state and local government officials from mandating or requiring an individual to receive a vaccine or immunization for covid-19.
Officials are also prohibited from requiring a person to receive a vaccine as a condition of education, employment, entry or services from the state or a state agency or entity, or for obtaining a licensure, certificate or permit from a state agency or entity, under the new laws.
The identical acts are intended to create a similar vaccine mandate ban to one included in Act 977 of 2021, which expired in August. The laws go further than the 2021 act by covering vaccines for any subvariants of the virus in addition to covid-19 vaccines.
The Arkansas Department of Health is required by the acts to maintain information and data on "any potential risks and harms associated with the administration of the vaccine or immunization" for covid-19 and any subvariants of the virus and make the information and data publicly available.
"We defended individual liberty by banning covid vaccine mandates for government employees and publishing the potential risks related to the shot," Sanders said during a news conference before signing the legislation.
Lawmakers passed the bills Thursday morning shortly before Sanders signed them into law. The House voted 82-15 to pass Senate Bill 3 by Sen. Joshua Bryant, R-Rogers, which became Act 4. The Senate passed House Bill 1002, by Rep. Howard Beaty, R-Crossett, now Act 10, with a vote of 27-4.
When presenting SB3 in the House, Beaty said a person's decision on whether or not to receive the vaccine "is a personal health freedom decision ... between the individual Arkansan, their physician and their maker."
Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville, spoke against the bill, saying it "does go in direct violation of what we're being told by public health experts."
On Monday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved and authorized for emergency use updated covid-19 vaccines formulated to more closely target variants of the virus that are currently circulating.
"The FDA is confident in the safety and effectiveness of these updated vaccines and the agency's benefit-risk assessment demonstrates that the benefits of these vaccines for individuals 6 months of age and older outweigh their risks," officials said in the release.
Unlike the 2021 act, the new laws do not include an expiration date. Beaty has noted that under his legislation, state and local entities are allowed to seek exemptions to the mandate ban while the 2021 act only allowed "a state-owned or state-controlled medical facility" to request an exemption from the Arkansas Legislative Council.
Sanders signed several other bills into law on Thursday including Act 3 and Act 9, which are intended to clarify laws regarding the locking of schools' exterior doors, and Act 2 and Act 8, which aim to clarify an effective date for a sentencing enhancement for a felony with a firearm under the Protect Arkansas Act.
The clarification legislation passed both chambers with broad support.
Act 5 aims to allow students who qualified under the Succeed Scholarship program to stack the Educational Freedom accounts and Philanthropic Investment In Arkansas Kids scholarships together regardless of whether they were or were not in public school or private school last year.
In her call for the special session, Sanders asked lawmakers to consider amending the Philanthropic Investment in Arkansas Kids Program Act and the Arkansas Children's Educational Freedom Account program to provide for the provision of educational services and access to additional funding for children with disabilities under the Philanthropic Investment in Arkansas Kids program, the Succeed Scholarship program and the Arkansas Children's Educational Freedom Account program.
Senate Bill 5, which became Act 5, passed the House with a vote of 88-0 on Thursday before Sanders signed it into law.
The Senate declined to suspend its rules Thursday to allow lawmakers to consider a resolution to extend the session up to 15 days to consider legislation to repeal the Arkansas Data Centers Act of 2023, which limits the kinds of regulations local governments can implement on cryptocurrency mining facilities.
Several Arkansas counties moved to pass emergency ordinances to regulate noise and other issues linked to the facilities ahead of the act's Aug. 1 effective date.