COVID-19 And Policy Update, Vol. 23

December 11, 2020

This is our last policy update of the year. Next year, we’ll start our weekly legislative updates during the Arkansas General Assembly’s legislative session. This year is certainly one that will go down in the history books with worldwide protests against racism and police violence, the COVID-19 pandemic and economic fallout, and a contentious presidential election. Let’s go into 2021 with hope and a dedication to continue the work of improving the lives of kids and families in Arkansas.  

If you haven’t already, please join our new Facebook Group, Arkansas’s Digital Advocates to engage in our work and connect with fellow advocates on issues impacting children and families in our state.

Case numbers and hospital capacity

Arkansas faces a shortage of health care resources to care for sick patients as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise. Hospitals in Arkansas have been stretched to the limits caring for a high caseload of severely ill COVID-19 patients since early March. The rolling average of confirmed COVID-19 cases in a week rose from around 500 people in June to more than 2,000 people now. 

There is growing concern for hospital capacity left to treat not only COVID-19 patients but patients with any other medical concern requiring acute care. Last week, UAMS Chancellor, Dr. Cam Patterson tweeted his alarm over the worsening conditions. News reports last week identified limited hospital beds, intensive care beds, ventilators, and even limited morgue space in some communities.

Not only are hospitals concerned about bed space and equipment, a third  threat is having enough medical staff members to care for the patients. Overburdened staff with higher patient-to-medical staff member caseloads, and the significantly increased hours required to work could jeopardize the quality of care.

The CARES Act Steering Committee approved a $109.6 million request by DHS in June to reimburse hospitals for spending between March and June on COVID-19 related expenses. Last week, Arkansas DHS received approval for another $30 million of CARES Act funding to help hospitals for COVID-19 related spending in response to the current surge of cases.  Although the state is providing more funding for the worsening conditions, the money alone will not stem the rise in cases. Instead, Arkansans must follow the guidance of public health officials to reduce the burden on hospitals. 

In a speech Thursday evening, Gov. Hutchinson said that the solution is personal action — wearing a mask, washing hands and keeping socially distant. He announced an extension of the public health emergency but did not announce any new restrictions.

SCOTUS will hear Arkansas Medicaid case

Last Friday, the United States Supreme Court announced that it would hear the case challenging Arkansas’s addition of a work-reporting requirement to our Medicaid expansion program. The decision comes as a mild surprise, given that the federal District Court and Court of Appeals ruled decisively against the work-reporting requirements. Arkansas encouraged the federal government to appeal those rulings to the Supreme Court, which has now decided it will hear arguments in the case. No date was set by the Court in its decision, but it is likely that the case will be scheduled in early 2021. 

AACF’s Josh Hall wrote earlier this year about the Appeals Court ruling in this case, which clearly stated that the reporting requirements went against Medicaid’s purpose in federal law: to provide health care coverage. A full analysis of the work reporting requirements is here

Lawmakers negotiate potential federal relief bill

The clock is ticking, and Congress still hasn’t come to agreement on what should be included in pandemic-relief legislation that congressional leaders hope to approve before they adjourn for the holidays. Some of the sticking points are whether to: issue stimulus checks to most Americans, rather than provide targeted relief only to those who are unemployed or struggling; shore up funds for ailing local and state governments; and provide liability protections for employers. Meanwhile, emergency relief provisions expire at the end of the year, including an eviction moratorium that provides limited protection for renters.

Arkansas joins case challenging election

Arkansas is one of the states asking the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in a case that seeks to delay certification of the presidential election in four battleground states that President Trump lost in his failed re-election bid. Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge joined attorneys generals in five other states asking to join the lawsuit filed Tuesday by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. The lawsuit claims in part that voting procedures established during the pandemic, including expanding mail-in voting, were unlawful and created “massive opportunity for fraud.” It challenges voting procedures that were also used in Arkansas. More than 100 Republican members of Congress signed a brief backing the lawsuit, including Arkansas Reps. Rick Crawford and Bruce Westerman.

Job growth is slowing amid pandemic

The national unemployment rate fell from 6.7 percent in October to 6.5 percent in November, but this number obscures some underlying issues. Job growth was anemic with the economy only adding 250,000 jobs, hundreds of thousands below the expectations of many analysts. One reason the unemployment rate dropped was because 400,000 people dropped out of the labor market altogether between October and November. 

Reapportionment in 2021

Major changes to our state’s political boundaries are coming next year. Every 10 years, following the decennial census, states redraw their voting districts, taking into account population data from the census. While the process ranges from state to state, in Arkansas state House and Senate districts are drawn by the Board of Apportionment, whose three members include the Governor, the Attorney General, and the Secretary of State. U.S. Congressional districts are redrawn by the state general assembly. In a recent interview with Talk Business, Governor Hutchinson said that he does not believe redistricting will have much impact since Arkansas is “a ruby red state, regardless of how you draw the lines.” You can watch the interview here

Hate crime legislation 

Arkansas Advocates’ Northwest Arkansas Intern, Michelle Faucher, wrote a blog post on the most recent attempt to pass hate crimes legislation in the state that will be considered by the Arkansas General Assembly next year. “The 93rd General Assembly, which convenes in January 2021, is our best chance yet to join the 47 states that have passed similar legislation. Only South Carolina, Wyoming and Arkansas have no such law in the books. As noted in a previous AACF article, Arkansas also has one of the highest numbers of hate crime groups per capita. In fact, Southern Poverty Law tracked 15 hate groups just in the state of Arkansas.”

Congress proposes bill to end slavery exception

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Last week, nearly 20 congressional lawmakers filed a joint resolution to remove the exception that allows people who have been convicted of a crime to be enslaved. It would add an amendment stating that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude may be imposed as a punishment for a crime.” Authors of the bill argue that the exception is, and was always, a racist policy aimed at harming Black Americans. In the 2019 regular session of the Arkansas General Assembly, Rep. Vivian Flowers proposed an amendment to the Arkansas Constitution that would ban the use of slavery and involuntary servitude as a punishment for a crime in Arkansas. 

Author Shane Bauer wrote in Slate about how, almost immediately following the Civil War, southern plantation owners, railroad companies, and mines used prison labor in their operations. Perhaps the clearest indication that this new system was an attempt to re-enslave Black Americans is that before the Civil War, most people who were imprisoned were White. Following the Civil War, seven out of 10 people who were imprisoned were Black. Today prison labor is used both by the prisons themselves for work such as cleaning and laundry, but also by corporations. 

Census count

Though the census count is over, the work of the Census Bureau to calculate the data continues. NPR has reported that in the rush to complete the census count, millions of records may be flawed. Counts of group quarters such as college dorms and prisons had major inconsistencies, according to leaked documents. Though impacting less than 1 percent of census records, the inaccurate counts could impact how federal funding is distributed and how congressional seats are apportioned. 

DACA ruling

On Monday, the Trump administration began re-accepting applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, after a federal judge ruled the administration had to restore the program to its status before 2017, when they attempted to end the program. The Department of Homeland Security said it would be meeting with the Justice Department to discuss an appeal. Local immigrant rights group Arkansas United has created a document in Spanish and in English to explain the requirements for DACA and what documents are needed to apply.

Arkansas General Assembly committee assignments

Last month the Arkansas Senate announced its committee assignments and leadership. Earlier this month, members of the House of Representatives made their committee choices, and those became final this week. If you are planning to advocate on a specific issue or issue area during the legislative session next year, it is important to find out who is serving on the committees where the issue will be considered. You can follow the committee members on social media to get updates of what is happening at the capitol, find out where they stand on issues, and connect with them directly. Tag them in a post or tweet to ask them their positions and to support or oppose a specific bill. You can also contact them directly to discuss the issue/s you care most about. 

State EITC most efficient, targeted way to cut taxes for working Arkansans

AACF Senior Policy Analyst, Bruno Showers, recently wrote in response to Governor’s Hutchinson’s proposed budget: “The Governor’s proposed budget for the upcoming biennium includes unspecified income tax cuts for ‘low-income’ Arkansans, amounting to $25 million in 2022 and $50 million in 2023, and it will be up to legislators as to how to allocate the cuts.

“We are encouraged that Gov. Hutchinson recognizes the need to help struggling Arkansas families, and we urge state lawmakers to ensure this opportunity will be good for local economies and lead to healthier and more successful children in our state. Research shows the EITC encourages work and improves children’s health, education, and later life work outcomes.” Read more.

Kids Count Week “at” the Capitol  

Join the Arkansas Kids Count Coalition for our first virtual Kids Count Week “at” the Capitol. Laws reflect the people who show up. And this week is all about ensuring that advocates for children show up at the state Capitol in 2021 to advance equity and social justice. You will have an opportunity to virtually: attend legislative committee meetings, network with other advocates, learn about pending legislation, hear from leaders around the state, and, most importantly, find out how you can take action to help our state’s kids including during the event. We will have some fun too! Stay tuned for more details.

Register here, separately, for each meeting you would like to attend.


COVID-19 Resources 

Racial Equity Resources