When the Arkansas legislature convenes the 2021 regular session, the first major challenge on the agenda will be ensuring that the public can still safely participate in the democratic process.
Visitors to the Capitol must wear a face mask, and they will be given a temperature check to make sure they are not running a fever.
There will be limited seating for visitors, because of Health Department regulations that restrict the number of people who can safely sit in the public galleries.
Legislative leaders were finalizing details of a safety plan up until the beginning of the session, which this year will convene at noon on January 11. They were working with the Secretary of State, who is the constitutional officer who is in charge of maintaining the Capitol and its grounds.
Several changes were made in how legislative committees will function during the pandemic.
Legislative committees review all proposed legislation before they are voted on during full sessions of the Senate and House. It is during committee meetings that the public can comment on bills.
Committee rooms in the Capitol have been connected with video technology, so that when a committee is in session the public can keep up with the action from a nearby room. If members of the public want to voice opinions on a bill, they will be allowed to do so, but there will be rules about where they must wait until it is their turn to speak.
Senators will consider adoption of new rules for the 2021 session that would allow legislators to participate remotely, in the event they are under quarantine or have concerns about appearing in person at the Capitol.
The legislature will address a series of familiar issues, along with some new ones.
Funding public schools is one of the first duties that lawmakers will take care of, because of the state’s Constitutional obligation to adequately and equitably provide an education to every child in Arkansas. Education funding accounts for more than half of the Arkansas general revenue budget.
Other vital state services include operating prisons and re-entry programs for inmates returning to society. Juvenile justice, foster care and adoption services are run by the state.
The state pays for health care, treatment of drug and alcohol abuse, residential care for people with developmental disabilities and nursing home care.
Apart from setting budgets and spending levels for state agencies, there will be bills affecting the rights of taxpayers, gun owners, businesses and voters.
The state revenue report for December shows that the Arkansas economy continues to recover from the impact of the pandemic.
For the first six months of Fiscal Year 2021, total general revenue was up $320.7 million over the same period of the previous year. That is a 9.5 percent increase.
The revenue report is an accurate gauge of economic activity in Arkansas, because tax rates have not gone up. In fact, the top state income tax rate just went down from 6.6 to 5.9 percent on January 1, thanks to a tax cut written into Act 182 of 2019.