LITTLE ROCK -- Legislators gathered at the Capitol in Little Rock to affirm the governor's declaration of a public health emergency for 60 days.
The governor declared the first emergency due to the covid-19 pandemic last year, on March 11, 2020. He renewed it several times and it finally expired on May 30, 2021.
Earlier this year, in the regular session of the General Assembly, lawmakers approved Act 403 to grant the legislature veto power over the governor's emergency declarations.
Act 403 gives the legislature the power to terminate a state of disaster emergency. The Senate and House must meet within eight days of the governor's declaration.
The governor issued a declaration of a public health emergency on Thursday, July 29, and both chambers of the legislature affirmed it on Tuesday, Aug. 3.
The legislature then met in special session to clarify that the state Department of Workforce Services may choose not to participate in a federal program that awards supplemental unemployment benefits.
The federal program was awarding unemployed workers an additional $300 a week. Business leaders and legislators have said that the added benefits encouraged people to stay home and not seek work, at a time when some businesses are having trouble finding enough staff.
The main topic of the special session was whether to amend Act 1002 of 2021, which was approved by the legislature earlier this year. It prohibits schools from requiring that students and staff wear masks.
Allowing schools to require masks was the first item on the governor's call for a special session.
Members of the House Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor heard numerous conflicting statements on the effectiveness of masks, and whether school boards should be able to pre-empt parental authority on health decisions that affect children.
Adding urgency to the debate was the fact that Arkansas is being hit with the Delta variant of the covid-19 virus. Children appear to be more susceptible to this year's Delta variant than they were to the original covid-19 virus last year.
According to the state Health Department and the governor, the rapid rise in cases of the Delta variant is causing an unsustainable strain on Arkansas hospitals. Declaration of a public health emergency allows Arkansas officials to recruit additional hospital staff from other states, under an interstate compact.
Also, the Health Department is ordered to identify any regulatory statutes that hinder the licensing of health care professionals. They will be suspended during the 60 days of the emergency.
July's state revenue report must be viewed from a different perspective than usual. Revenue in July of 2021 was well below revenue in July of 2020, but that does not reflect a downturn in the state economy.
Rather, the decrease of almost 22% happened because last year the state and the federal government moved the tax filing deadlines from April 15 to July 15 due to the pandemic.
State revenue officials anticipated the decline and budgeted for it, so even though revenue was below last year's levels it was 9.4% more than forecast.
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Editor's note: Arkansas Sen. Cecile Bledsoe represents the third district. From Rogers, Sen. Bledsoe is chair of the Senate Health Committee.