Amendment debate starts with ending fiscal sessions

by Steve Brawner (BRAWNERSTEVE@MAC.COM) 215 views 

The process of choosing which constitutional amendments will be referred to voters began Thursday (Feb. 9) with presentations by senators hoping to end fiscal sessions and appoint Supreme Court justices.

The most likely proposed amendment from the Senate, one enacting tort reform, will be discussed by the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee later. The committee will wait to hear from sponsors of all the proposed amendments before selecting one of them.

The committee heard first from Majority Leader Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, and Minority Leader Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, regarding Senate Joint Resolution 1, which would end the fiscal sessions that occur during even-numbered years. Hendren and Ingram argued that the fiscal session, passed by voters in 2008, has led to unintended consequences. They said it’s made being a citizen-legislator into a full-time job, discouraging potential candidates from serving. Meanwhile, legislators are using appropriations and special language to debate polices rather than focus on budget issues, as the fiscal session was intended to address.

The two senators said taxpayers are having to pay for sessions that didn’t even occur until 2010. They said the governor can call a special session if needed. Committee members were largely receptive, although Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, expressed concern about the need for the Legislature to remain a co-equal third branch of government.

Wednesday was the deadline for filing constitutional amendments. House members filed at least 19 proposed amendments, while senators filed at least 10.

Legislators have the power to refer up to three constitutional amendments to the voters, but legislative leaders have said they want to limit it to two. Rules have been adopted by both the House and the Senate to allow each chamber to refer one, with a third possible with a two-thirds vote of both chambers.

In the Senate, the most likely constitutional amendment to be adopted is a tort reform measure that would cap lawyers’ contingency fees, punitive damages, and non-economic damages and would give the Legislature the authority to adopt rules of pleading, practice and procedure for the courts. That amendment is sponsored by Irvin and has 14 co-sponsors in the 35-member Senate, including Hendren along with the committee’s chairman, Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, and Senate President Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy. It has 53 co-sponsors in the 100-member House.

It is being pushed by a coalition of business and health care-related groups under the umbrella of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. The Arkansas Bar Association’s Legislative Committee voted Wednesday to oppose the amendment.

In contrast, the proposed fiscal session amendment has three sponsors in the Senate and none in the House, meaning its likely only route to the ballot would be as the third amendment approved by both the House and Senate. A resolution to end the fiscal session has been filed in the House by Hendren’s father, Rep. Kim Hendren, R-Gravette. Meanwhile, Rep. Andy Davis, R-Little Rock, filed a resolution to end the fiscal session and instead have annual regular sessions.

House Joint Resolution 1016 by Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Springdale, has 37 co-sponsors in the House and 12 co-sponsors in the Senate. It would require voters to present a photo identification when voting and would provide that the state provide IDs at no charge to those lacking an identification.

Unlikely to be referred is Senate Joint Resolution 4 by Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, which also was discussed Thursday. The proposal would replace the system of electing Supreme Court justices with a nominating process where the governor would present five names to a commission that would rank them and have the ability to eliminate two. The governor would then appoint any of the remaining ones regardless of rank, and then they would be confirmed by the Arkansas Senate. Justices would serve a single 14-year term. Lower court positions would continue to be elected.

Hutchinson began his testimony by acknowledging the resolution’s unlikelihood of passage. He argued that the system now leaves voters with little information because candidates cannot take positions on issues on which they may have to rule. Meanwhile, outside groups are spending millions of dollars in anonymous “dark money” to influence elections.

Several on the committee were doubtful, including Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, who said he had asked numerous people if they were willing to give up their vote, and none had said yes.

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