Today’s committee tomfoolery comes from the late afternoon meeting yesterday of the Senate Transportation Committee, which gave a favorable recommendation to SB 534 by Sen. Blake Johnson to enhance penalties for distracted driving and texting while driving but, significantly, to lower the penalty for failure to wear a seatbelt from a primary to secondary offense.

A parade of witnesses appeared to oppose the seatbelt change, including Bill Bryant, director of the Arkansas State Police, health officials and representatives of police chiefs and sheriffs.  Bryant said the seatbelt law enhancement approved in 2009 had led to a reduction in highway fatalities. Before that, a trooper could not stop a car solely because the driver wasn’t belted. “Seatbelts do save lives,” he said. “This is a step backwards.”

Questioning wasn’t friendly. Sen. Breanne Davis, vice chair of the committee, objected to the amount charged for seatbelt tickets because of additional court costs added to the $25 fine. Sen. Mathew Pitsch echoed the concern about costs. Sen. Ricky Hill asked if the State Police was ready to let the bill fail on account of the seatbelt provision. He suggested the distracted driving provision was more important. Said Bryant: “I want it both ways.”

The critical moment comes on the motion for do pass. Johnson made the motion and Hill seconded it. Before the vote, Davis complained again about the amount of the charge on a seatbelt ticket. “It’s ludicrous to me.” She invoked personal freedom on seatbelt use, criticized the Administrative Office of the Courts and others for fighting a reduction in court costs on this particular violation and complained about the cost for someone who might have been too tired to buckle up after a “12-hour” shift at work.

Watch it all here. At 4:10, it gets interesting. On the vote, there’s one audible “aye,” from Johnson. There are no audible nays. Davis ruled that the bill failed. Microphones go off. Some conferring is seen. Davis then announces, after talking to staff, that she’d made an error. Because there were no “nay” votes, the bill passed, she announced. No one asked for a roll call. In theory, a majority vote is necessary for approval of a bill in Senate committee.