8 Bills on Shooting Mandates Return to Panel

The deeply divided Arkansas Senate voted Thursday to return eight bills that would restrict employer-mandated covid-19 vaccinations to committee for review.

The Senate’s 19-14 vote to send the coronavirus-related bills back to the Senate Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor came a day after the panel advanced the bills to the full Senate without have the usual discussion or public testimony.

Senators spent more than three hours on Thursday in a controversial and at times emotional debate over procedural wrangling over these eight bills.

Last month, President Joe Biden’s administration issued a mandate for companies with more than 100 employees that will require workers to be vaccinated or tested weekly. Arkansas bills meet this mandate.

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A proclamation issued Monday by pro tempore Senate Speaker Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, and House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, recalled the Legislature in session from Wednesday to consider the vetoes; correct errors and oversights; complete its work on the redistribution of Congress; review legislation relating to the covid-19 public health emergency and distribution of covid-19 relief funds; and consider the need for a further extension of the regular session of the 93rd General Assembly.

DECISION ON SB732

Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin on Thursday ruled that the Senate could consider one of the bills, Senator Blake Johnson’s Senate Bill 732, R-Corning.

That’s because the Republican Lieutenant Governor said he interpreted the simultaneous House and Senate Resolution 15 approved by Hickey and Shepherd as allowing lawmakers to consider legislation related to Covid-19, as well as legislation. distributing relief funds to Covid-19 in the extended period of this week. ordinary session and on the basis of its review of the decisions of the State Supreme Court.

Griffin’s move came despite Hickey’s assertion that the wording of the resolution was only intended to allow legislation distributing covid aid funds during the extended regular session – not legislation stand-alone covid – in addition to congressional redistribution legislation.

Sen. Jim Hendren, an independent from Sulfur Springs, challenged Griffin’s decision, saying the legislature would violate the constitutional doctrine of unfinished business by considering bills related to coronaviruses. Senator Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, said he disagreed with Hendren.

In a 15-18 vote, Hendren’s challenge to Griffin’s decision fell to three votes less than the 18 required for the 35-member Senate.

Johnson’s SB732 would prohibit any business, person, or other legal or commercial entity from forcing another person to receive a vaccine or immunization against covid-19 under certain conditions.

Under the bill, coercion would be prohibited if the vaccine or immunization against covid-19 is “medically contraindicated” for the other person, as evidenced by a written statement from a licensed physician in the State, or if the other person objects to the vaccine or immunization on the grounds that the vaccine or immunization conflicts with the person’s religious or philosophical beliefs.

If the employer disregards these conditions and takes punitive action against an employee who has requested consideration, the employee can claim a loss of wages under the bill, and an employee who requests a loss of wages “will be reimbursed comparable to unemployment benefits” in the state by the American Rescue Act Plan Act of 2021.

But Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis – who sits on the steering committee for the U.S. Arkansas bailout plan appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson – told senators that was not an approved use of federal funds. He later said the Department of Finance and State Administration consultant on the use of US bailout federal funds drew a similar conclusion.

At one point, Johnson admitted, “I didn’t know there were set guidelines.” Senator Ron Caldwell, R-Wynne, said steering committee chairman Larry Walther, who is secretary of the finance department, confirmed that federal funds from the state’s US bailout could not be used from the way Johnson’s bill requires it. Caldwell also sits on the steering committee.

BACK TO COMMITTEE

At this point, Senator Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, said he was not proud that the Senate Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor gave the public only 30 minutes’ notice of its meeting on Wednesday then sent controversial bills to the entire Senate without verification. measures.

“What we are doing is wrong.” Next, Senator Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, former chair of the public health committee, proposed to the Senate to send all eight bills to committee.

Committee chair Cecile Bledsoe R-Rogers said she expedited the committee’s review of the eight bills on Wednesday in the Senate because she believed lawmakers were trying to get out of the extended regular session to redraw congressional district boundaries within three days and senators could debate bills on the Senate floor on Thursday.

But she said she was “okay” with sending bills back to committee.

In a 14-18 vote, the Senate rejected a motion by Garner to send seven bills back to committee and allow Senator Bob Ballinger’s Senate Bill 731, R-Ozark, to remain on the Senate floor.

SB731 would establish a right to privacy regarding vaccination status, prohibiting employers from requiring disclosure of an individual’s vaccination status and retaliation against an individual for exercising that privacy right. The bill includes language that would allow the Department of Finance and Administration to establish a grant program with distribution of Covid-19 relief funds or funds received as part of the US Federal Rescue Plan to compensate people injured by a violation of the measure.

The Senate then voted 19 to 14 to approve Irvin’s motion to send the eight bills to committee. The committee is scheduled to meet at 8:30 am today.

CONSULTANT’S OPINION

Subsequently, Finance and Administration spokesman Scott Hardin said the finance department followed all laws and any bill that included the use of US bailout funding was automatically provided. to a consultant, Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health / Hagerty Consulting.

The state has relied on the expertise of these companies throughout 2020 for federal funding of the coronavirus law, aid, relief and economic security, and this continues today in this regard. that concerns federal funds for the US bailout, Hardin said.

John Grathwol of Hagerty Consulting wrote Thursday in an email to deputy director of the finance department, Paul Louthian, “Despite the language of [SB732], the payment of funding from the American Rescue Pan to employees who suffer economic losses due to failure to: a.) a request from an employer to take a COVID-19 vaccine or b.) to indulge Weekly testing, both employer programs designed to protect their workforce and ensure uninterrupted business continuity, is not an eligible use of American Rescue Plan Act funding. The American Rescue Plan Act covers the cost of directly responding to the public health emergency of Covid-19, he said.

But Grathwol said there was no language in the American Rescue Plan Act that identifies the economic losses suffered by employees who lose their jobs by not getting vaccinated as an eligible expense of federal funding.

“It can be argued that the economic losses suffered by an employee who does not comply with the employer’s requirements are an economic impact of the COVID-19 public health emergency,” he wrote in his email in Louthian.

“However, this economic impact is not felt by all employees of a company or industry,” said Grathwol. “This is clearly the result of an employee’s personal decision not to comply with the employer’s requirements. I believe that the overall legislative intent of [federal act] is clear: provide funds to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and address the economic damage caused by the economic downturn. The legislation makes no provision for financing the economic losses of those who choose not to comply with the employer’s mandates.

“This does not mean, however, that some parties cannot attempt to argue these issues,” he said.

Johnson said Thursday evening that he plans to try to amend his bill today and that he plans to ask the Senate committee to approve an amended bill.

Across the State Capitol on Thursday, the House of Representatives took no action on Representative Joshua Bryant’s 1972 House Bill, R-Rogers, a day after the bill has been approved by the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee. Bryant said he plans to change the legislation.

HB1972 would exempt employees from federal or employer coronavirus vaccination mandates and allow unemployment benefits for employees made redundant for refusing to be vaccinated. It’s similar to Senator Kim Hammer’s Senate Bill 739, R-Benton, which has Bryant as a co-sponsor.

Information for this article was provided by Rachel Herzog of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Lieutenant Governor Tim Griffin addresses senators Thursday at the State Capitol. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / Staci Vandagriff)


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