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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas lawmakers will not meet this month to vote on whether to support the state’s coronavirus emergency declaration, House and Senate leaders said Tuesday, rejecting a request from Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Hutchinson last week had asked lawmakers to convene a “committee of the whole” to vote on whether to support the state’s disaster declaration. Under the declaration, Hutchinson has imposed a mask mandate, capacity limits and other restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.
Senate President Jim Hendren and House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, both Republicans, cited the upcoming legislative session, which begins Jan. 11, in turning down the request.
“We all know the Emergency Service Act will be vigorously debated during the session, as it should be,” Hendren, who is the governor’s nephew, said in a message to the Senate. “Rather than debating the issue twice, most would prefer to wait and have the debate when we will be in a position to have time for more testimony, discussions and actually implement any changes that we determine are appropriate.”
The declaration had been set to expire at the end of this month, but Hutchinson said because of the decision he’d extend it into next year.
“The decision to not meet to consider the current emergency and to delay the consideration until next year is the prerogative of the General Assembly,” Hutchinson said in a statement. “As the chief executive of the state, I will continue to lead and address the very serious public health crisis that is before us.”
The governor earlier Tuesday said he requested the meeting in response to lawmakers who said they wanted more of a say in the state’s response to the virus.
“I think it’s totally beneficial to the people of Arkansas to see there is a full team effort with the Legislature, with the governor, all recognizing the emergency we’re under and affirming that,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson proposed the vote as he has faced pushback from fellow Republicans over the state’s restrictions. A lawsuit filed by a group of GOP lawmakers challenging the restrictions was dismissed by a judge and is on appeal before the state Supreme Court.
“We work for the people of Arkansas, not the Governor,” GOP Sen. Trent Garner tweeted after the decision was announced Tuesday. “We will have a real debate in the session, when we can change the law.”
Shepherd said the decision didn’t reflect lack of support for the declaration, but he expected discussion next year over potential changes to the governor’s emergency powers.
Meanwhile, Arkansas’ virus cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to mount. The state’s probable and confirmed virus cases rose by 2,141 to 189,198, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. Twenty-six more people died from COVID-19, bringing its total fatalities since the pandemic began to 3,016.
The number of people hospitalized due to COVID-19 rose by 20 to 1,070. Hutchinson announced the state was ready to launch a new effort to better coordinate COVID-19 cases among its hospitals.
The state on Monday received its first shipments of the coronavirus vaccine, and the first doses were administered to health care workers.
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