LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas lawmakers return to the Capitol on Monday for a legislative session overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic that has killed thousands in the state.
Even before the session begins, Arkansas is tied with South Dakota for the second largest outbreak in a state Legislature. The virus has changed the way the Legislature operates and a fight over the state's response to it is expected.
"COVID response and recovery are going to bookend the session," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said.
In between that, lawmakers face a busy agenda.
House and Senate leaders have announced steps they'll take during the session aimed at curbing further outbreaks but still allowing the public to participate.
"The very essence of a session deals with us negotiating face-to-face and public participation," incoming Senate President Jimmy Hickey said. "We're still going to have our session, we're just going to move into a fashion that's safe."
House Speaker Matthew Shepherd left open the possibility of halting the session if a major outbreak occurs, but said there's not a set number that would trigger it.
"If we reach a point where we feel it's unsafe or we're not able to be productive or get the job done, then we're working into our rules some flexibility to allow to take a recess if needed," he said.
The politics of the virus is likely to overshadow the session. Hutchinson has faced some pushback from fellow Republicans over the state's restrictions, and a group of GOP lawmakers sued last year to try and invalidate them.
Proposals that have been filed or discussed for this year's session would target specific restrictions the state has issued or require legislative approval of them in some form.
Hutchinson said he's open to discussing changes to the Emergency Powers Act, but said it still needs to give him flexibility to respond.
The Legislature will again take up reauthorization of the state's Medicaid expansion. Continuing the program requires a three-fourths majority vote, a threshold that has been difficult to meet in recent years.
Hutchinson, however, said he's not expecting a similar fight this year.
"When you're in the middle of a pandemic, it's not the time to turn back on the heath care access it has brought to so many Arkansans," he said.
Hutchinson said he's working on a new proposal to submit to the federal government for the program, which he said will do more to address maternal health.
The program's future could be clouded by two court cases. The state is defending before the Supreme Court a work requirement that has been blocked by lower courts.
The U.S. Supreme Court is also considering an effort by Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act all in or in part, a ruling that could upend the state's budget.
Hutchinson last year detailed a $5.9 billion budget proposal that called for $50 million in tax cuts, but a key part of those reductions is facing resistance.
Hutchinson is calling for cutting income taxes for new residents to 4.9% for five years, a move he says will help make the state lure more people and businesses.
But both Shepherd and Hickey say they've heard little support for the idea.
"I just don't think current residents are going to look kindly on it, and they're our constituents now," Hickey said.
The session will feature the redrawing of lines for the state's four congressional districts, though that will likely occur later in the session.
The majority-Republican Legislature is again expected to take up proposals to restrict abortion, especially after President Donald Trump's appointment of three new justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. One proposal already filed would ban virtually all abortions in the state.
GOP lawmakers are also pushing for legislation that would loosen restrictions on the use of deadly force in self-defense. Similar "stand your ground" legislation failed before a Senate committee two years ago.