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Horowitz: Arkansas Gov. Hutchinson vetoes bill zeroing out COVID business fines


Red states

Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Arkansas's state motto is Regnat Populus, which is Latin for "the people rule." But if the governor has anything to say about it, he will be the only person ruling.

It looks like Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson needs the national attention from conservative media that Kristi Noem has garnered. What everyone should learn from the transgender sports bill in South Dakota is that while conservatives ignore what occurs in red state legislatures, we are getting screwed by either the legislature or governor in the strongest conservative states in the country.

Earlier this month, the Arkansas legislature passed SB 301, which would require the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division to return roughly $40,000 in cash it received in the form of fines from restaurants and businesses between July 1, 2020, and Feb. 2, 2021. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Dan Sullivan, passed the Senate 19-14 and the House 67-20.

The bill also requires the agencies to return any subsequent fines if the governor declares another emergency. However, it only applies the rescission of fines on general businesses, not fines levied against hospitals or nursing homes that violated health department orders.

The bill finds "that the implementation of these fees have been arbitrary with state agencies unfairly applying the fines under § 12 20-7-101 to smaller businesses over larger businesses; that these fines on businesses have negatively impacted small businesses throughout the state as well as the state economy and have not had the desired impact regarding the public health emergency; and that this act is immediately necessary to protect businesses from unfair penalization and to preserve the public peace."

Indeed, restaurants have been the favorite target of the governors; however, there is no evidence that they have contributed to the spread over Walmart and Home Depot, nor is there any evidence that non-pharmaceutical interventions have been effective at all. CDC data has shown no increase in cases from dine-in services reopening. A contact tracing report from Kansas showed just 0.91% of cases emanating from transmission in bars and restaurants, resulting in zero deaths.

Yet 12 months into this failure, even red state governors continue to cling to this notion that they can unilaterally legislate property rights out of existence.

On Monday, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, an alleged Republican, vetoed the bill. "The only message sent by this bill is that the rule of law does not matter," Hutchinson wrote in a letter to legislative leaders. "It is an affront to those citizens who diligently followed health and safety directives to protect themselves and their fellow Arkansans."

The nerve of the legislature to actually legislate regarding the most important issue of our time! The governor can suspend property rights, and if legislators step in, they are the ones promoting lawlessness. Don't they know the governor can make the most devastating and novel laws violating the Bill of Rights with the flick of the pen?

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu made a similar argument recently when he threatened to veto a House-passed bill zeroing out all Department of Health fines in the Granite State.

It's shocking how governors still believe they can regulate our lives this dramatically without any input from the legislature or the need to provide evidence of the effectiveness of their edicts – even 12 months later.

Here's really where conservatives should be concerned about the state of the GOP supermajorities in the legislatures. In Arkansas, only a simple majority is needed to override vetoes. Given the 78-22 majority in the House and 27-8 majority in the Senate, this should have been a cake walk. The Senate voted to override it on Tuesday, but shockingly, the House voted down the override, losing 28 Republicans from the original passage of the bill.

Here is a list of Republicans who voted against the override:

Clearly, the governor worked his magic. "I'm very disappointed in the Arkansas House that has a 78-22 GOP majority and passed the bill with 67 votes, but can't sustain a veto override with 51," said Dan Sullivan, the sponsor of the bill. Sullivan did note that a group of members can push to expunge the vote and start over again, but that would require pressure from their constituents to counter the pressure from the governor.

In many ways, this exemplifies the GOP in half the country. Republicans have squandered shockingly large majorities with Republicans in name only and can't stand for a bold contrast from what the political elites are pushing. In the case of COVID regulations, none of this is either constitutional or rooted in science, yet Republicans are barely distinguishable from Democrats on the issue. If they simply want to cave to boundless executive power, why even run for the legislature?

Asa Hutchinson is thankfully not running for re-election and will likely be replaced by former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, who appears to be a shoo-in for the primary and general election. However, these constant fights with tyrannical Republican governors should motivate conservatives to focus on GOP gubernatorial primaries more than any other election.

This should also motivate conservatives to begin focusing on state legislatures as the primary organ to redress our grievances and make our voices heard. When we are dealing with the toughest issues that affect the lives of Americans, that is the time, more than ever, to involve the legislature, not the time for unilateral action against civil liberties. After all, that is what self-governance is all about.
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