Arkansas Lawmakers Approve COVID-19 Fund as Virus Cases Rise

The House and Senate unanimously approved identical bills moving the state’s surplus into the fund, which Gov. Asa Hutchinson could access with the approval of legislative leaders. Both chambers planned to give final passage to the proposal at 12 a.m. Saturday, and Hutchinson said he planned to sign the legislation shortly afterward.

The plan advanced the same day Hutchinson said the state’s models estimate the number of people with COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, could increase to 3,500 in two weeks. The state has had at least 384 cases of COVID-19 and three deaths.

“My goal is to beat those numbers and that’s what we’re trying to do as a state, to beat the modeling, that trend curve…We also want to prepare for the worst case scenario,” Hutchinson said.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

Hutchinson proposed the fund in response to a $353 million budget shortfall projected due to the coronavirus outbreak. The Republican governor has said the fund is needed to avoid cuts in essential services during the outbreak, including the Department of Health and Department of Emergency Management, and for needs such as hospital equipment.

The House met at a basketball arena instead of the Capitol because of concerns about the coronavirus. The Senate met at the Capitol, but with restrictions on how many members could be on the floor. Both chambers approved temporary rules allowing members to vote by proxy.

House and Senate leaders have not said how they’ll approach the next legislative session, set to begin April 8, which will focus on crafting the state’s budget for the coming year. They’ve left open the possibility of effectively postponing the start of the session by convening and then recessing until a later date.

Senate President Jim Hendren said they’ll face much tougher choices in that session, given the downturn Arkansas expects in revenue because of the pandemic. The state has temporarily closed barber shops, gyms and hair salons, and has prohibited sit-down service at bars and restaurants.

“There’s going to be some coming to terms with the new reality we find ourselves in with regard to the economy and the budget,” Hendren told reporters. “It is going to be a challenge.”

The fund was approved despite an unsuccessful effort a day earlier to expand the number of lawmakers who would approve its use.

“I don’t like setting precedents like this, but it is a time that I have to be willing to bend, too, with everything that’s going on,” said. Sen. Jimmy Hickey, who had proposed the amendment.