The legislation may face legal challenges because of its impact on minority voters.
Two bills that split Little Rock between two congressional districts and Pulaski County between three are set to become law. Although Gov. Asa Hutchinson voiced his concern about the impact of the redistricting plan on minority populations, he chose not to veto the bills so they will become law without his signature.
Under the United States Constitution, the Arkansas General Assembly is responsible for redrawing congressional district boundaries once a decade. Using new census data that’s released every 10 years, legislators reconfigure the state’s four congressional districts so each contain roughly the same population.
“While the percentage of minority populations for three of the four congressional districts do not differ that much from the current percentages, the removal of minority areas in Pulaski County into two different congressional districts does raise concerns,” Hutchinson said.
HB1982 and SB743 were both sponsored by Sen. Jane English, a Republican from North Little Rock, and Rep. Nelda Speaks, a Republican from Mountain Home. Opponents of the legislation have argued the redistricting plan will disenfranchise minority voters because the communities being split between the 1st, 2nd and 4th Districts are predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.
Although he has been contacted by a number of people to veto the bills, Hutchinson said he decided not to “out of deference to the legislative prerogative and the political process.” Allowing the bills to become law will enable those who wish to challenge the redistricting plan in court to do so.
In 1990, Hutchinson was counsel in a case with the NAACP in which they challenged the congressional redistricting plan passed by the General Assembly at that time. The court did not rule in their favor, but Hutchinson said it was a learning experience.
“I learned from that experience the real concerns of the minority population, about their equal opportunity to have an effective voice in congressional elections,” he said. “Fair and equal representation is necessary for the integrity and the essence of our democratic process.”
Following the governor’s announcement, the Democratic Party of Arkansas issued a statement in which chairman Grant Tennille said DPA is prepared to do its part “in the coming legal process to protect Arkansas voters.”
“The maps passed in the legislature are illegal on the surface and those who passed it know it — they were told to their faces multiple times about the impact of their maps, yet chose to ignore them,” Tennille said. “They won’t be able to ignore the facts in the court of law.”
The Arkansas Democratic Black Caucus and the NAACP will host an event called Rally for Fair Maps tomorrow at the Arkansas State Capitol. The event begins at 5:30 p.m. and will “bring awareness to the redistricting map legislation that unfairly dilutes the minority vote,” according to event organizers.
During the governor’s weekly press briefing this afternoon, Hutchinson also announced he would not veto two additional additional bills that allow employees to opt out of vaccine mandates. They too will become law without his signature.
One factor in his decision is the General Assembly defeated an emergency clause that would have allowed the bills to go into effect immediately. The bills will go into effect in 90 days, which “allows critical time to assess the harm and for the courts to review the bills” if they are challenged, he said.
SB739 and HB1977 provide employee exemptions from federal mandates and employer mandates related to COVID-19. Under the legislation, employees can provide a negative test or proof of immunity.
The legislation was drafted in response to President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for federal contractors, Hutchinson said. The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is also developing a rule that will require all employers with 100 or more employees to ensure workers are vaccinated or tested weekly. While the governor does not support the federal mandate, he said placing additional mandates on employers at the state level is not the solution.
“The solution is not to place the employers in a squeeze play between the federal government and state government,” Hutchinson said. “Employers need the freedom to protect their employees and their customers, and the government should not interfere with that freedom through mandates.”
The new legislation may increase unemployment claims and the cost of testing most likely will fall on the employee. Medical and religious exemptions are already permitted under current law so these bills are unnecessary, Hutchinson said, and the debate surrounding them has been harmful to the state’s goal of increasing vaccination rates.
“The debate and the bills themselves create distrust and additional hesitancy regarding the COVID-19 vaccines,” he said. “These vaccines are safe and have been carefully tested and evaluated…Arkansans need to get vaccinated, but not through mandates from the state level or from the federal level.”
Nearly 7,000 doses of the vaccine were administered in the last 24 hours. Roughly 50 percent of those were booster doses. Just over 53 percent of eligible Arkansans 12 years old and older have been fully vaccinated.
Health officials may approve vaccines soon for children 5 to 11 years old and they could be available as early as next month, Health Secretary Dr. José Romero said. From December 2020 to August 2021, Arkansas saw an 84 percent increase in pediatric hospitalizations. The biggest jump in cases occurred in the 5 to 11 age group, he said.
“That vaccine is safe and effective,” Romero said. “As the governor mentioned, it is the easiest way to get out of quarantine in schools if you are exposed.”
More information about COVID-19 vaccines can be found on the Arkansas Department of Health’s website.