Gov. Asa Hutchinson has asserted the necessity of taking executive action during the COVID-19 pandemic in response to a lawsuit filed by Arkansas state legislators.
On Thursday, Sept. 3, a group of Republican lawmakers, led by Rep. Dan Sullivan of Jonesboro, have filed the lawsuit against Dr. Jose Romero, the secretary of the Arkansas Department of Health. In the lawsuit, the lawmakers challenge the validity of directives the Health Department has issued since March 2020.
The lawmakers also are challenging Hutchinson’s public health emergency declaration. Hutchinson first declared an emergency in March and has extended the declaration multiple times.
According to the lawsuit, state lawmakers should have oversight of the directives made in regards to public health.
In a Thursday afternoon press conference, Hutchinson said that he did not believe the lawsuit was intended as an attack on Romero but on his own executive authority.
“I think it goes without saying this is not really an attack on the Department of Health but it’s an attack on the broad executive authority I have acted under this emergency. This actions I have taken during the emergency is based upon what has been approved by the Arkansas General Assembly that gives the authority for governor as chief executive to manage an emergency and to act quickly because it is that type of urgent situation,” Hutchinson said.
“The argument of the legislators is that they consider the Department of Health’s guidelines and directives as rules that the general assembly should review, should change, should rewrite, should allow or disallow,” he said. “I don’t know anyone of them [legislators] who are as qualified in public health matters as our epidemiologists and our public health leaders at the Department of Health.”
Hutchinson argues that the current public health crisis requires quick action, which he said is an executive branch function.
“That is not how to act quickly during an emergency. Those are executive branch functions that are based upon the authority wisely granted by the General Assembly. Now, I as governor, am accountable to the people of Arkansas. I’m elected by the people of Arkansas, and the decisions I make are accountable to them. That’s democracy and our representative government in action. But when people are dying, you don’t need delay – you need quick action,” he said.
Lawmakers opposed to the governor’s executive actions had other recourses before filing a lawsuit against the health department. Hutchinson mentioned that the lawmakers could have called a concurrent meeting of both the Arkansas House of Representatives and the Arkansas Senate to end the public emergency.
Ending the public emergency would have consequences for many in the state. Numerous programs and actions are directly connected to Hutchinson’s public health emergency and would disappear or be reduced by ending the declaration.
“If the emergency ends, then so does telemedicine. If the emergency ends, the liability protections for small businesses would end. If the emergency ends, the suspension to allow virtual education as an option would be curtailed, and all kinds of other things from e-notaries to the signing of wills during a pandemic. And including, we would have to end the rapid licensure of medical personnel that has been critical during these times. These are examples of executive action that has been taken that has been necessary during this pandemic,” he said.