LITTLE ROCK – The legislature reconvened to draw new boundaries for the four Congressional districts in Arkansas, and to consider responses to federal vaccination mandates.
The Senate made very slow progress, because of the long-term importance of the measures and their controversial nature.
When the session began, at least 18 proposed maps of Congressional districts had been introduced. As lawmakers discussed and worked on revisions, numerous other maps were proposed that reflect compromises. Much of the discussion was about whether to split counties into two or more separate Congressional districts, and which counties would be split.
The map of the state’s Congressional districts will reflect how Arkansas is represented in Washington, D.C. for the next 10 years.
The Senate Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor had on its agenda a series of bills affecting the rights of individuals when the federal government or their employers require them to be vaccinated against the Covid-19 virus.
Before the Senate began discussion of the merits of those bills, there was lengthy and heated debate on whether it was even proper to consider them. The dispute centered around language in House Concurrent Resolution 1015, which the legislature adopted in March to authorize an extension of the 2021 session.
An extension was needed because the legislature could not draw Congressional district maps during the regular session, which took place from January through April. That’s because the U.S. Census Bureau hadn’t released population data yet.
Rather than adjourn last spring, we adopted HCR 1015 allowing us to return to the Capitol this fall, after the census data was finally ready, to draw new Congressional district maps.
HCR 1015 also allows the legislature to consider “legislation related to the COVID-19 public health emergency and distribution of COVID-19 relief funds.”
The Senate was almost evenly divided over the extent that HCR 1015 allowed the introduction of measures that address our response to the pandemic, but are not specifically related to relief funds.
The lieutenant governor presides over the Senate, and he ruled that HCR 1015 allowed the introduction of the Senate bills in question. The lieutenant governor took into account a precedent set in a state Supreme Court ruling from a similar dispute that occurred when the legislature went into extended recess in 1979.
To novices the debate may have looked like a tempest in a teapot, because so much was about procedure. However, senators took it very seriously because the long-term implications are so important.
One outcome is that the legislature will decide the extent to which Arkansas will resist federal vaccination mandates.
Another outcome of this session is that the legislature will decide how much it intends to test the limits of its constitutional power, in relation to the judicial and the executive branches of state government.
After the legislature has adjourned the extended session, the governor is expected to call a special session to consider reductions in the state income tax.