House panel backs con­sti­tu­tion tweak

Mea­sure would raise amend­ment bar

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - JOHN MORITZ

Arkansas law­mak­ers took their first vote Mon­day to­ward re­fer­ring to the state’s vot­ers a pro­posed con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment that would make it harder for them and the Leg­is­la­ture to change the state’s con­sti­tu­tion.

The leg­isla­tive pro­posal — of­fer­ing a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment to change the method of propos­ing and ap­prov­ing con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments— is House Joint Res­o­lu­tion 1003, which

was en­dorsed by the House State Agen­cies and Gov­ern­men­tal Af­fairs Com­mit­tee in an evening ses­sion Mon­day.

The mea­sure comes four months after the 2016 gen­eral elec­tion, in which three of four voter-spon­sored is­sues were blocked by the Arkansas Supreme Court too late

to re­move them from bal­lots. Vot­ers also bucked the opin­ion of leg­is­la­tors by ap­prov­ing an amend­ment to le­gal­ize med­i­cal mar­i­juana.

The pro­posed con­sti­tu­tional change would re­quire the back­ers of a statewide bal­lot mea­sure to sub­mit a pe­ti­tion with the re­quired sig­na­tures 180 days be­fore the elec­tion, re­duc­ing the time can­vassers would have to gather sig­na­tures by about two months.

Such mea­sures in­clude con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments, ini­ti­ated acts and ref­er­en­dums.

To get an amend­ment on the bal­lot, back­ers also would have to get sig­na­tures from at least 25 coun­ties rather than the cur­rent 15. Both cham­bers of the Gen­eral Assem­bly would have to pass a res­o­lu­tion with two-thirds ma­jori­ties to get an amend­ment on the bal­lot, up from the cur­rent sim­ple-ma­jor­ity thresh­old.

To ap­prove the amend­ment at the polls, whether re­ferred by the vot­ers or the Leg­is­la­ture, would re­quire a 60 per­cent thresh­old. The cur­rent thresh­old for pas­sage is a sim­ple ma­jor­ity.

That would have been enough to sink last year’s Med­i­cal Mar­i­juana Amend­ment, Is­sue 6, which got 53 per­cent of the vote.

If ap­proved by both the House and Se­nate, the pro­posed amend­ment would go be­fore vot­ers in 2018.

“We’re go­ing to in­crease the thresh­old on the pub­lic, in­crease the thresh­old on us to amend the Con­sti­tu­tion,” said Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, who pre­sented the leg­is­la­tion to the com­mit­tee Mon­day.

The prin­ci­pal spon­sor of the leg­is­la­tion is House Speaker Jeremy Gil­lam, R-Jud­so­nia, who is joined by Ballinger and Reps. Greg Led­ing, D-Fayet­teville, and Andy May­berry, R-Hens­ley.

Only a few scat­tered “nays” were heard dur­ing a voice vote, which passed with a large ma­jor­ity of the com­mit­tee. The leg­is­la­tion can now be con­sid­ered by the full House.

In ad­di­tion to chang­ing how con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments are placed on the bal­lot, HJR1003 also pro­poses to change how they can be taken off.

It states that any­one chal­leng­ing the suf­fi­ciency of the sig­na­tures sub­mit­ted on be­half of a pe­ti­tion must do so within 30 days after the sig­na­tures are cer­ti­fied by ei­ther the sec­re­tary of state’s of­fice or a city or county of­fi­cial over­see­ing a lo­cal elec­tion.

The pro­posal also al­lows the at­tor­ney gen­eral to re­view the bal­lot ti­tle for any amend­ment sub­mit­ted by the Leg­is­la­ture to en­sure it is an ac­cu­rate de­scrip­tion of the law pro­posed, and that it can be read by vot­ers in the time they are in the vot­ing booth. The at­tor­ney gen­eral cur­rently re­views de­scrip­tions for mea­sures pro­posed by vot­ers.

The pro­posed bal­lot ti­tle for HJR1003 it­self comes in at more than 1,000 words, and it takes up most of the first four pages of the leg­is­la­tion.

A vet­eran of voter-pro­posed bal­lot mea­sures, Fam­ily Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Jerry Cox, said he was in fa­vor of some as­pects of the pro­posed amend­ment, but wary

of oth­ers.

For ex­am­ple, he said, he sup­ported the short­ened time frame in which to chal­lenge a pro­posal. How­ever, he ar­gued the higher thresh­old for sub­mit­ting a suc­cess­ful pe­ti­tion would ben­e­fit well-fi­nanced cam­paigns while hurt­ing grass-roots ef­forts.

“It would be­hoove us to get some peo­ple around the ta­ble who have ac­tu­ally done these,” Cox said.

Scott Trot­ter, a Lit­tle Rock at­tor­ney who had signed up to speak against the bill, was ab­sent from the com­mit­tee meet­ing, which be­gan after an hours­long House ses­sion that lasted into the evening.

If ap­proved by both cham­bers, HJR1003 would be the third pro­posed con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment re­ferred to vot­ers from the Leg­is­la­ture dur­ing this ses­sion. The gov­er­nor doesn’t ap­prove these con­sti­tu­tional pro­pos­als. Most changes to the Arkansas Con­sti­tu­tion re­quire ap­proval from vot­ers. One of the pro­pos­als of­fered this year would limit dam­ages and lawyers’ fees in civil cases. The other pro­posal is on re­quir­ing voter iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.

The amend­ments pro­posed by the Leg­is­la­ture typ­i­cally get more sup­port from the pub­lic. The three on the bal­lot last year dealt with county of­fi­cials, the gov­er­nor’s pow­ers and a cap on state-is­sued bonds. They all eas­ily cleared 60 per­cent of the vote.

There have been ex­cep­tions, Cox warned.

“Be care­ful what you ask for on this be­cause it might come back as some­thing we’re not real proud of,” he told the com­mit­tee.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/STATON BREIDENTHAL

House Speaker Jeremy Gil­lam (right), R-Jud­so­nia, talks with Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, on Mon­day be­fore call­ing the House into ses­sion at the state Capi­tol. After the House met, a leg­isla­tive panel re­viewed Gil­lam’s pro­posal to change how con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments are ap­proved.

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