LT. GOV. TIM GRIFFIN: His ruling opened the door for consideration of anti-vaccination legislation.

The Arkansas Senate today moved to extend the session for committee debate on a batch of anti-vaccination bills. But it had already signaled positive signs for the proposals.

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A prolonged debate on whether the bills had a proper hearing in committee arose while the Senate was considering Sen. Blake Johnson’s SB 732 which prevents employers from firing employees for refusal to be vaccinated if they present medical, religious or “philosophical” objections. It allows an employee to seek lost wages comparable to federal pandemic unemployment benefits.

Brian Chilson
Arkansas Sen. Blake Johnson

He said controversy about the vaccine required protection for reluctant workers. He said he’d been vaccinated but said he opposed forcing others to get the shot. No one is “forced” to get the shot, Sen. Jim Hendren noted. They can seek work elsewhere.

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But there were indications bills like Johnson’s, if not his specific measure, enjoyed broad support.

The session began with Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, the presiding officer, ruling that the anti-vaccination legislation was germane to the reconvened session. A resolution calling for an extended recess until Census data was available for congressional redistricting also mentioned the possibility of dealing with COVID-19 pandemic issues “and” federal pandemic relief money. Senate President Pro Tem Jimmy Hickey said the intent of that language was only intended to give an avenue to spending federal money should authorization be needed.

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Griffin said he understood Hickey’s argument, but the plain reference to COVID-19 was sufficient for the new bills to be introduced, though none was specifically contemplated at the time of the recess. He acknowledged legal challenges were possible under past Supreme Court rulings that said the recessed legislature, under terms of the Constitution, could only reconvene for unfinished business.

Hendren appealed Griffin’s ruling. “What we are saying is it doesn’t matter what the Constitution says, it matters what the resolution says.” He said allowing the legislature to reconvene by simply putting a few words into a resolution is “fundamentally wrong” and opens the door to a full-time legislature.

Brian Chilson
Sen. Jimmy Hickey was nonplussed about Thursday’s proceedings.

Hickey also argued emotionally that the COVID bills do not qualify as unfinished business. He said senators needed to decide if they are gong to be political or if they are going to govern. He also said the first bill up for consideration can’t use federal pandemic unemployment money and isn’t germane for that reason as well.

The vote to overturn Griffin’s ruling failed on a 15-18 vote with two abstaining. This opened the door, again, for considering the batch of anti-vaccination bills.

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When the debate turned to the bill itself, several senators noted the bill came out of committee without public input. Sen. Keith Ingram asked if the bill required the state to pay unemployment because the federal money cannot be used for this purpose. “Where’s the money going to come from?”

Johnson said the bill, even without federal funding, provided some protection for workers. But he said the state wouldn’t have to pay benefits if federal money couldn’t be used.

Brian Chilson
Sen. Jonathan Dismang (right) talks with fellow Republican Sen. Bart Hester.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang objected to a process in which a batch of anti-vaccination bills were pushed out of a committee with virtually no public notice and no committee hearing. He said it was unclear what the legislation would require. “This is controversial enough we should allow the public to be involved.”

Sen. Missy Irvin then moved to send all the COVID bills back to committee for an opportunity for public comment, a process that would extend a meeting that was originally intended to be only three days into next week.

Hickey said all the bills refer to federal Rescue Plan funding, which cannot be used to pay compensation to workers who lose jobs for refusal to be vaccinated or for many other purposes envisioned in the legislation. He said the Department of Finance and Administration had confirmed this.

Hendren also spoke for referring the bills to the committee, though he still believes the legislature can’t legally consider the bills for constitutional reasons. “If we’re going to be unconstitutional, let’s do it right.”

Brian Chilson
Sen. Trent Garner is fired up, per usual.

Sen. Trent Garner proposed to send bills back to the committee except for SB 731 and 739. Both protect vaccine resisters (a right to privacy on providing vaccination information to employers, for one), but they also include reliance on federal pandemic relief money.

After much debate, the Senate defeated Garner’s proposal and approved Irvin’s motion to send all the anti-vaccination bills back to committee. Some of those making  that vote said they supported the legislation. Sen. Kim Hammer, sponsor of a similar bill that has received approval in a House committee, supported return of his bill to committee so no cloud would hang over it.

More debate and the likelihood of approval of several of these dubious pieces of legislation lies ahead in the Senate. Unless the House surprises and refuses to pass anti-vaccination legislation.

With that done, the Senate defeated a motion to adjourn so Trent Garner could present his resolution condemning President Biden for handling of the withdrawal of the military from Afghanistan. It was adopted, with some reservations expressed by Democrats for the use of the military to score political points and to suggest that Democrats didn’t support the military.

The Senate Committee will hear the anti-vaccination bills Friday morning. Both the House and Senate are scheduled to meet.