Arkansas Senate leader says lawmakers could propose ballot initiative changes, self-impose limits

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 105 views 

The Senate president pro tempore said the Legislature may self-impose a limit of two referred constitutional amendments and that one of them could change the process for voter-initiated proposals.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, said during a Monday (Oct. 31) interview that while the Arkansas Constitution gives legislators the authority to refer three amendments every two years, in 2017 they may self-impose a limit of two – one from the House and one from the Senate. He said legislative leaders are discussing the limit.

One of those amendments could be used to create a time frame as to when signatures must be submitted for voter-initiated ballot proposals and when the Arkansas Supreme Court completes case reviews so that lawsuits are decided before voting begins. Any such change would require a constitutional amendment because time frames are the prerogative of the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Such a time frame could prevent a reoccurrence of this year, when votes for three voter proposals on the ballot will not be counted: an amendment that would have set judgment limits in medical lawsuits; one that would have authorized the creation of three casinos; and an initiated act that would have legalized marijuana for medical use. Early voting had already begun on the last proposal when the court ruled against it Oct. 27.

Dismang said legislators will “take an all-encompassing look at making sure we really are protecting the state Constitution and not making changes that shouldn’t be there.” He said he’s not concerned about the ease with which initiated acts can be proposed. An initiated act has the force of law. However, he said, “It’s too easy at this point to change the state Constitution, and there’s no limits on what those changes can be.”

Groups who have the ability to pay canvassers have an advantage in changing the Constitution, he said, referring to the proposed casino amendment, which would have specifically authorized who could operate those entities.

“The last thing we need to be doing is writing individual corporations into our state Constitution, which almost happened this past year,” he said.

Dismang said legislators also could seek to clean up the signature-gathering process. A number of signatures for the marijuana proposal were declared invalid because of technical violations, such as using post office boxes rather than residence addresses.

The Supreme Court voted 5-2 to invalidate that proposal, with Justice Courtney Goodson concurring with the majority decision and Chief Justice Howard Brill and Justice Paul Danielson dissenting. Brill wrote that the signature gathering mistakes were not disqualifying. Goodson wrote in her concurring opinion that Act 1413 of 2013 left the court no choice but to remove the initiative, adding that it “imposes a chilling effect on the rights of our citizens to initiate laws. The petition here failed to satisfy the onerous demands of the Act, even though there is no allegation that the signatures were invalid in any other way. The result is that the wishes of the citizens who signed the petition in good faith are being discarded, and the right of the people to pass judgment on the proposal in the voting booth has been lost.”

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