I’ve been unable to follow the legislature closely today, a blessing of a sort.
But the House Public Health Committee seems to have lived up to its reputation as a place where common sense, the Constitution and compassion often go to die.
They cut off testimony from ABC Director Doralee Chandler, who was objecting to SB 301 to forgive penalties assessed on a handful of restaurants and bars fined for violating health directives. She said it was a bad message and effectively a punishment to those who had followed good practices. The bill was promptly endorsed after Rep. Jeff Wardlaw asked for an immediate vote.
The committee gave speedy approval to HB 1402 by Rep. Sonia Barker (R-Smackover) to impose a variety of requirements on women seeking a medication abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy. It ensures, legislators were told, that procedural hoops and extensive records would be required of women and doctors in such cases, even if the Biden administration loosens rules on medicinal abortion.
The committee approved SB 378 to give health providers a “conscience” exception to refuse medical service or insurance coverage. There were concerns this could spur ill consequences for public schools that provide counseling and health clinics. The committee wasn’t moved by that testimony.
Then there was an extensive discussion on a resolution, HCR 1003, to declare an end to the state of emergency declared by the governor. This would end the “mask mandate,” already widely ignored. It could end approval for things like telemedicine that have proved popular as emergency directives and are in the process of being considered as permanent law. It might harm reimbursement under Medicaid for COVID testing and even some treatment, Health Department officials said.
Legislators said they were tired of rules and their constituents don’t like them. They just seem to want to declare the pandemic over. The Health Department said medical experts fear the danger has not passed.
Legislators said the governor could declare another state of emergency if he wanted. It was noted that other legislation is pending for a more phased approach to ending emergency directives, many of which the governor has already lifted. He has said he’ll lift the mask mandate on March 31 if the experience with the virus warrants.
This bill was declared passed on a voice vote, but fell about three votes short of passage on a roll call.
Then came a discussion of SB 379, which Rep. Jimmy Gazaway explained would clarify old statutes on handling emergencies. It would require such declarations by governors to be renewed every 60 days and also would give the legislature the power to terminate such declarations, even when out of session.
The legislation says the legislature “shall” meet within eight days after the declaration of a statewide emergency to either approve it or terminate it, thus guaranteeing a legislative voice at the outset. The bill provides a legislative review of executive orders. It provides some legislative review of the Health Department’s power to declare quarantines. It also applies new rules for executive order renewal to those in effect when the legislation passes.
Gazaway said the legislation wasn’t criticism of Governor Hutchinson. “We want to be sure we were consulted,” he said. “The current law doesn’t provide for that.”
The bill was endorsed on a voice vote without an audible objection.
The problem I see, with one obvious example: The wide resistance to mask-wearing, a proven good practice. Leave this to a popular vote or to legislators who pass so many bills contrary to good health? Critical though I’ve been of Governor Hutchinson on some areas of pandemic response, I’m confident he’s done better than many of the members of this committee would do.