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House committee votes no on mask bills

House plans to adjourn Friday, Speaker Shepherd says; Gov. Hutchinson: Disappointed with votes by committee
Arkansas Capitol (Source: KAIT-TV)
Arkansas Capitol (Source: KAIT-TV)((Source: KAIT-TV))
Published: Aug. 5, 2021 at 3:32 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 5, 2021 at 11:32 PM CDT
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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KAIT) - It was a debate between personal freedom and the ability to protect children Thursday as a House committee voted against two bills on the mask in schools issue.

The House Public Health Welfare and Labor Committee heard from lawmakers on HB1004, sponsored by Rep. Tippi McCullough (D-Little Rock) and HB1003, sponsored by Rep. Julie Mayberry (R-Hensley) and Rep. Jimmy Gazaway (R-Paragould).

McCullough told lawmakers that her bill was about protecting children, providing local control, and controlling the spread of the Delta variant.

Several people who spoke at the committee meeting questioned the need for the bill, saying increasing masks in schools would take away local control, harm children with disabilities and that a decision should not be made in fear.

Rep. Deborah Ferguson (D-West Memphis) questioned comments made by some at the meeting on the use of masks, saying the information provided by them was “junk science” that has been debunked.

However, Ray Lehman, who spoke at the meeting, countered Ferguson by saying the decision should ultimately be decided by parents and not lawmakers.

The bill failed by voice vote in the committee Thursday.

HB1003

The committee met Wednesday to discuss HB1003.

After several hours of debate Wednesday, Mayberry agreed to amend the bill and move it back to committee.

However, a motion to amend the bill Thursday on the House floor failed by a voice vote and also failed in committee Thursday.

Mayberry told the committee Thursday that she amended the bill to change a 60-day requirement for school boards to set a mandate to 21 days and a requirement of 30 per 10,000 people in a district, compared to 50 per 10,000 in a district for a mandate to be set.

The committee also voted against the bill by voice vote Thursday.

Rep. Ferguson criticized the vote, saying she thought it was unconscionable for the Arkansas Department of Correction to have a policy in place for prisoners and for there not to be a policy in place for students.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson also issued a statement Thursday afternoon about the committee votes, saying he was disappointed by the committee’s actions.

Gov. Hutchinson also appeared Thursday on Good Morning America, talking about the mask issue.

The votes also drew opposition from Arkansas Democratic Party Chairman Michael John Gray.

“Where does Sarah Huckabee-Sanders stand, where does Leslie Rutledge stand? Where are those who seek office in Arkansas standing on allowing local school districts to make our children safer? Why are they silent? They have no plan for Arkansas, they have no constructive guidance for the Legislature with which they hope to govern. Arkansas should take note -- the people who are campaigning to lead us are failing to be part of the discussion. They are absent and it is intentional,” Gray said.

“Arkansas’s failure to have any type of plan is exceedingly apparent when you look at what other states, including those with Republican leadership, are doing to protect their citizens. Utah is providing N95 masks to every child this school year. Louisiana is directing people to wear masks in public indoor settings, including a mandate for K-12 and college students. Arkansas, courtesy of a Republican Party of Arkansas that seems to glorify extremes and not support those in their own party who want to do something reasonable, is choosing to do nothing for its citizens. In fact we don’t even know where the leader of the RPA Jonelle Fulmer stands on vaccines or protecting our children. We must demand better of our leaders. Arkansas can do better than this and we will do better than this,” Gray said.

Sen. Trent Garner (R-El Dorado), a leading opponent on the mask mandate ban issue and sponsor of Act 1002, said on social media that he believes the failure of the bills in committee was a win for limited government.

House plans to adjourn Friday morning

House Speaker Matthew Shepherd (R-El Dorado) told content partner KATV’s Marine Glisovic that he did not see any other options as far as passing a piece of legislation on the mask mandate ban issue.

“We’re out of time,” Rep. Shepherd told Glisovic when discussing the special session.

Shepherd said the House is planning to adjourn Friday morning.

The House and Senate are expected to gavel in at 8:30 a.m. Friday at the Capitol.

Lawsuit filed

In other news, the Little Rock and Marion school districts filed suit in Pulaski County Circuit Court, challenging the state’s mask mandate ban.

In the 20-page suit, the attorneys allege that masks in schools are needed due to a health crisis.

“Arkansans are living through a worsening COVID-19 pandemic. The strong consensus of medical and public health experts is that requiring the wearing of masks in schools will significantly reduce the risk of contracting that highly contagious and virulent disease. No rational reason exists for denying public school students, teachers and staff, and the school boards which are obligated to keep them safe, the ability to ensure that all who work and learn in our public schools are as safe as possible,” the attorneys said in the suit.

Marion superintendent Dr. Glen Fenter also spoke to the committee Thursday.

Fenter said as of Thursday, the district had 839 people in quarantine, with seven students and three staff testing positive for COVID.

Also, Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde and Pulaski County Sheriff Eric Higgins filed a brief in support of a separate suit filed by a Little Rock parent, alleging that Act 1002 violates state law, according to court records.

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