TEXARKANA, Ark. — The local delegation to the state General Assembly is hopeful that a COVID-19 relief measure will quickly be approved during a special session beginning today.
The Assembly will consider a single bill to transfer about $173 million dollars from the state's unallocated reserve account to a new COVID-19 rainy day fund. The Texarkana area's three representatives — Sen. Jimmy Hickey Jr., Rep. Carol Dalby and Rep. Lane Jean — are bound for Little Rock to support the bill, they said Wednesday, though Hickey plans to offer an amendment.
The move is meant to fund hospitals and clinics — especially those in rural areas — as they battle the coronavirus pandemic, including by purchasing much-needed personal protective equipment. Relief for workers and businesses is also a high priority.
"Obviously, we've got to have that money to address this pandemic and try to help stem that tide that's coming," Dalby said.
Exactly how the funds will be distributed is an open question, but the bill has legislative review built in, said Jean, co-chair of the Assembly's joint budget committee. The speaker of the House, the president pro tem of the Senate, and the majority and minority leaders of both chambers will oversee the allocation of the COVID-19 fund to state agencies.
"I think we've got some safeguards in it so the legislature will know what's being spent. If something is deemed an emergency, you've got seven people looking at it, six legislators and the governor, as opposed to just the governor himself," Jean said.
Hickey's amendment will aim to streamline and speed the approval process for the bill.
"The way it's currently written, I do not like," he said.
To allow at least 6 feet between the 100 House members as they work — as recommended by public health agencies to stop the virus' spread — they will meet at the Jack Stephens Center, a 5,600-seat arena on the campus of University of Arkansas-Little Rock. The 35-member Senate will meet on the grounds of the State Capitol. All members will be checked for fever before entering, Dalby said.
Both chambers are considering accommodations for members who wish to vote electronically or by telephone, but doing so will require significant temporary changes to legislative rules. Voting by proxy may be an option for the Assembly's off-year budget session, which is required by the state constitution and is slated to begin April 8. Such changes could slow down the voting process, Dalby said.
"That's new territory for us. There's a reason we're all in the same room, but we can't be in the same room now," she said.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson called for the session Wednesday, saying there is broad agreement about the bill among lawmakers and the needed number of votes to pass it. By law, a special session may last no longer than three days before it must be extended.
"The goal is to get us in and get us out as quickly as possible. But we have no option. We have to do this for the people or Arkansas, for our state, to keep our state on sound fiscal ground and combat this pandemic," Dalby said.
A shortfall of more than $350 million in the state budget is predicted to result from the coronavirus outbreak and its effect on the economy. A loss in sales tax revenue is predicted to reach about $150 million by the end of the state's fiscal year, June 30. Postponing the due date of state income taxes to July 15 means that income-tax revenue will not be available until next fiscal year.
The budget crisis will trigger a mechanism in Arkansas' Revenue Stabilization Act, forcing spending cuts for all state government departments and agencies, Jean said.
"That way you're not picking winners and losers. It's a flat cut across the board," he said. Dalby estimated the cuts will be 4% to 6%, but Jean estimated 4.2%.
The delegation agreed that the pandemic is unprecedented and must be taken seriously.
"The circumstances are something that I've never seen before," Jean said.
Dalby stressed that the public should follow all recommended guidelines, including social distancing and limiting gatherings to 10 people or fewer.
"Caution is the word, and I really want the people of District 1 to understand and take this seriously," she said.
Dalby represents House District 1, which includes most of Miller County. Jean represents House District 2, which includes portions of Columbia, Lafayette and Miller counties. Hickey represents Senate District 11, which includes Lafayette, Little River and Miller counties, as well as portions of Hempstead and Sevier counties.