1.31.21 -Democrat Gazette – by Rachel Herzog, Michael R. Wickline
The Arkansas House Judiciary Committee is expected to consider the fate of stand-your-ground legislation on Tuesday as the 93rd General Assembly enters the fourth week of its regular session.
Monday will be the 22nd day of the session, which started Jan. 11.
“I think as we’ve seen and as we anticipated, this is about the time where we see the committee activity really pick up. We’re starting to see more legislation make its way to the floor and really starting to get into the regular routine of the session,” said House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado.ADVERTISING
Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, and Shepherd said they are not sure how long the regular session is going to last.
“A lot of that is still up in the air,” Shepherd said.
The speaker on Thursday filed House Concurrent Resolution 1008 that would extend the regular session beyond 60 days and require the General Assembly to recess at the close of business on April 9 or at an earlier time agreed upon by the House and Senate.
Hickey is the Senate sponsor of HCR1008.
April 9 would be the 89th day of the session, said House Parliamentarian Buddy Johnson.
Under Shepherd’s resolution, the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore may reconvene the General Assembly at any time before noon May 3 to consider gubernatorial vetoes, correct errors or oversights, complete its work on constitutional amendments, and consider the need for further extending the session.
If the General Assembly takes an extended recess because of the covid-19 public health emergency, the dates listed “shall be extended by a number of days equal to the length of the extended recess or recesses,” Shepherd’s resolution states.
Shepherd said he plans to ask lawmakers to pass his proposed extension soon.
The regular session in 2019 lasted 88 days to fall in the middle of the range of lengths for other recent sessions: 96 days in 2011, 101 days in 2013, 82 in 2015 and 86 in 2017. Regular sessions start in January of odd-numbered years.
Twenty-five of the state’s 135 lawmakers — or 18.5% — have publicly acknowledged testing positive for covid-19 since the pandemic arrived in Arkansas in March.
The Department of Health reported Saturday that Arkansas had 294,387 total covid-19 cases. Arkansas’ population was estimated at 3.017 million on July 1, 2019, according to the U.S. Census. Thus, 9.8% of Arkansans have tested positive for the coronavirus.
No lawmakers publicly disclosed testing positive last week. Three lawmakers said they had positive tests in the first two weeks of the session.
“With covid, we try to keep everybody safe and I think everybody has got a grasp on how [the Legislature’s coronavirus protection procedures] are working and I think that is coming along good,” Hickey said.
STAND YOUR GROUND
Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Ozark, said he and Rep. Aaron Pilkington, R-Knoxville, plan to present his stand-your-ground bill to the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. The bill would amend current self-defense law by eliminating the duty to retreat from a perceived threat.
The House Judiciary Committee has 11 Republicans and nine Democrats.
The legislation is Senate Bill 24. The bill cleared the Senate in a 27-7 vote on Jan. 19 with Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, joining 26 Republicans to support it. Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, joined six Democrats in opposing it.
Ballinger said he expects the bill to clear the House Judiciary Committee in a 10-9 vote, if Shepherd doesn’t attend Tuesday’s meeting, or a 11-9 vote, if Shepherd does.
“The reality is we found a happy medium that would get everybody’s votes,” he said. “It is a balanced bill.”
Dianne Curry, president of the NAACP Little Rock, said she hopes the measure doesn’t clear the House committee.
“We are hoping people will stand firm and fight for it not to pass in the state because it gives an open line for people to make a mistake” and kill somebody, she said.
House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Carol Dalby, R-Texarkana, could not be reached for comment by telephone on Friday.
Shepherd said he had not yet looked at his schedule and did not know if he would be a part of the debate on SB24.
“I think what we’ve seen is not just the discussion as to whether there should be stand-your-ground legislation, but there’s also the discussion about, even among some of the pro-Second Amendment groups, as to what specifically that legislation should look like, and I know that those discussions continue to be ongoing,” he said.
“My understanding is 34 to 36 states have similar legislation or have similar policies that have been enacted by way of judicial decision, so there’s a number of factors that I personally look at including feedback from constituents but also then looking at the specific language,” Shepherd said.
Asked whether he has decided to sign SB24, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Friday that he is still reviewing the bill and its potential impact and will follow the discussions and hearing in the House Judiciary Committee.
“As I have said, the prosecutors and law enforcement has not indicated that there is a problem that needs to be addressed so we need to examine very carefully any unintended consequences from changing the law for when a citizen can use deadly force against another person,” the Republican governor said in a written statement.
Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, said “he would have loved to get” his bill that would change the state’s Emergency Services Act filed last week, but it probably will be introduced this week.
“We are just trying to make sure the bill is right, so we don’t have to file a bunch of amendments.”
Hammer said the bill would require legislative approval of a continuation of an emergency declared by the governor under an executive order and also require legislative approval of any directives issued by the Health Department.
He said the bill has an emergency clause, so “the current emergency that we are operating under now would be voted on up or down whether to continue.”
If the current emergency is rejected by the Legislature, “there is a phase-down so it is just not an immediate termination,” Hammer said.
“It has a short term to get the plane on the ground because there are pieces of legislation that are filed that are going to try to take advantage of some of the benefits that have come as a result of the emergency such as like telemedicine and some of the other things, and we want to coordinate to try to make sure that we get everything achieved that we want to,” he said.
Hutchinson said Friday that he has met personally with Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, and Hammer about the language of their proposed changes to the Emergency Services Act.
“The discussions have been very productive,” he said in a written statement.
“My priority has been to balance the need of the legislature to have necessary oversight with the need for flexibility and quick action for the Chief Executive of the state in dealing with a disaster or emergency. The discussions will continue,” Hutchinson said.
Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, said he probably will ask the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee within te next two weeks to consider his bill banning abortions except to save the life of the mother and to remove an ectopic pregnancy.
The bill is Senate Bill 6.
“We are going to have some testimony, so we’ll schedule it probably” for the week after this week, Rapert said.
“I am not certain on that, but that is my plan,” he said.
Rapert has said he believes it’s time to give the U.S. Supreme Court another chance to overturn its landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
“This has not even moved through committee yet and so I have not stated a position,” Hutchinson said.
“I have met with Sen. Rapert and I have expressed concerns on what the impact would [be] on the prolife efforts if the Supreme Court reviewed this legislation,” said the governor, who is an attorney.
Feb. 10 is the deadline for lawmakers to file proposed constitutional amendments.
So far, only two proposed amendments have been filed. One proposal would allow the General Assembly to call itself into special session.
“There’s different ideas not only on what amendments we should refer out, but even specifically on tort reform, I think there’s several different thoughts as to what any potential tort reform amendment should look like, and so that’s just going to have to be something that we work through,” said Shepherd.
Randy Zook, president and chief executive officer of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, said, “Tort reform has long been, and continues to be a priority for the business community and the State Chamber.
“We anticipate the General Assembly will consider one or more resolutions this session that, if adopted, would amend the constitution and improve the legal environment and encourage economic development,” he said in a written statement.
The most logical options are to allow the Legislature to either set damage limits or adopt rules of practice, pleading and procedure, Zook said.
“We will be supportive of either of those and look forward to engaging members and the general public on the issues.”