House panel backs constitution tweak
Measure would raise amendment bar
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
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.
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.