Arkansas Senate votes to refund virus fines to businesses; house panel rejects health care objections measure

FILE - In this Nov. 10, 2020 file photo, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks remotely to...
FILE - In this Nov. 10, 2020 file photo, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks remotely to legislators in Little Rock, Ark. At least 187 state legislators nationwide have tested positive for the virus and four have died since the pandemic began, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press. Twelve Arkansas lawmakers have tested positive for the virus over the past month, the second largest known outbreak in a state legislature. (AP Photo/Andrew Demillo File)(Andrew Demillo | AP)
Published: Feb. 25, 2021 at 2:32 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 25, 2021 at 5:39 PM CST
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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The Arkansas Senate on Thursday voted to refund the fines the state has collected from some businesses for violating coronavirus restrictions, as Gov. Asa Hutchinson prepared to make an announcement about the emergency he declared for the pandemic.

The measure, which passed 19-14, now heads to the House for a vote and was sponsored by a Republican lawmaker who has sued challenging the state’s coronavirus restrictions. That lawsuit was dismissed by a Pulaski County judge and has been appealed to the state Supreme Court.

“It shows our constituents that we are co-equal and working for them,” Sullivan said before the vote.

The vote comes as Hutchinson has faced pushback from some Republican lawmakers over the state’s virus restrictions, which have included a mask mandate and capacity limits for bars and restaurants.

“It seems that this bill is more about turf war than the actual decisions and the changes you’re making to code,” independent Sen. Jim Hendren, who is also the governor’s nephew, said to Sullivan during a debate about the measure.

Hutchinson’s office said he planned an announcement Friday morning about the public health emergency and the directives he’s issues. The governor earlier this week said he planned to extend the emergency declaration, which is set to expire this weekend.

The state’s Alcohol Beverage Control Division has collected nearly $38,000 in fines since July, according to a revenue impact statement prepared by finance officials.

The refunds would not apply to any fines levied against hospitals or nursing homes. The bill, if enacted, would not take effect until 90 days after the Legislature adjourns.

The Department of Corrections on Thursday also announced that it will resume a pilot program for in-person visitation at four prisons. The visitation had resumed in December, but was halted later that month after the prison system went into lockdown due to a rise in cases.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - An Arkansas House panel on Thursday rejected legislation that would have allowed medical providers to refuse to treat someone because of their religious or moral beliefs after opponents said it was too broad and would allow discrimination against patients.

The House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee voted 8-10 for the proposal, which said health care workers and institutions have the right to not participate in non-emergency treatments that violate their conscience. The Senate approved the bill earlier this month.

The proposal had the backing of state Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe, who opposed a similar measure that failed in the Legislature in 2017. Supporters of the bill said it would protect health care workers from being forced to perform something that goes against their conscience.

But the head of the Arkansas chamber of commerce told the panel some of the state’s largest companies opposed the bill because of concerns that it would prevent some of their employees from getting needed medical care.

Opponents have also said it would allow providers to turn LGBTQ patients away because of a provider’s personal beliefs.

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