House advances amendment amending amendment process

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 233 views 

The Arkansas House of Representatives voted to advance a third constitutional amendment for the voters to consider – one that would change the amendment process itself.

The proposed amendment would make it harder for either voters or the Legislature to amend the Arkansas Constitution.

Among its provisions are:

– Legislatively proposed amendments would require a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate before being presented to the voters, and the attorney general would review the amendment and certify it at least one year before the general election;
– Amendments proposed by the Legislature or by citizen-led petitions would require a three-fifths majority in the general election to be ratified;
– Legal challenges to signatures collected for citizen-led petitions would have to be made within 60 days of the filing, while those made for legislatively proposed amendments would be made at least 180 days before the general election;
– The Supreme Court would strike amendments proposed by the General Assembly only if the ballot title or popular name “constitute a manifest fraud upon the public”;
– Amendments could not specifically bestow powers or privileges to specific individuals or private business entities.

The Legislature can refer up to three amendments to the voters but decided at the beginning of the session to refer only two, one from the House and one from the Senate, with a third that could be considered by both houses. The bill passed 79-10.

Under the session’s rules, the third amendment requires a two-thirds vote in both houses to be considered. If that occurs, it requires a majority vote in both houses to pass.

Asked afterwards about the bill’s chances in the Senate, Gillam said, “From what we’re hearing so far, at least, I think we’re in good shape at this point, but we’ll see where we’re at. I never take anything for granted in this process.”

Gillam said the amendment was born from his visits across the state, where he heard concerns that “individuals that were basically coming in and from the public’s perception were just buying a constitutional amendment.” That concern was driven by one proposal that would have created a constitutional gambling monopoly had it remained on the ballot and passed.

Other citizens were concerned about the Arkansas Supreme Court disqualifying proposed amendments very late in the process, while legislators were also expressing concerns about the amendment process.

“It was a simple fact of this is our Constitution,” he said. “This is like our treasured document, and are we going to treat it like we do a normal piece of legislation through here, which is kind of where we’re getting to.”

The proposed amendment’s title is more than four pages long, which Gillam said could be a problem, but an ethics amendment in 2014 was also long, and it passed. He said he had decided to include all of his ideas as well as ideas offered by other members in one amendment and to try to be as transparent as possible.

In other business Monday, the House voted not to expunge a previously failed proposal for a 20-year highway bond issue that would have been funded by a 6.5-cent wholesale tax on motor fuels. Voters would have been given the opportunity to approve the bond issue in the November 2018 election.

House Bill 1726 by Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, had been rejected once by the House and had failed in a previous attempt at expungement, which allows it to be reconsidered. He said this would be the last time he would seek expungement, and needing a two-thirds vote, the bill failed 63-19 with 3 voting present.

Legislators did vote for House Bill 2085 by Rep. Johnny Rye, R-Trumann, which would distribute part of the sales taxes collected by out-of-state online retailers to the Arkansas Transportation Department. The bill initially failed 49-27 with 11 voting present but, upon reconsideration, passed 56-25-2. However, the bill that would create the mechanism for collecting those taxes has not been passed.

Legislators also voted for two medical marijuana bills.

House Bill 1991 by Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs, contained several provisions, including a prohibition on vending machines at dispensaries; a prohibition against being intoxicated by marijuana at a dispensary or cultivation facility; limiting access to dispensaries and cultivation facilities to those with a card; a requirement that packaging be child-proof; and a requirement that marijuana products not exceed ten milligrams of active tetrahydrocannabinol per portion. It passed 90-0.

House Bill 1935 by Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, would allow public schools to restrict students impaired as a result of medical marijuana from participating in class or school activities, just as employers are allowed to restrict such employees. The bill passed 86-0.

House members also voted for two bills related to the state’s Freedom of Information Act while voting against another.

House Bill 2132 by Rep. Laurie Rushing, R-Hot Springs, would create a task force that would review, evaluate and approve proposed amendments to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 1967. The bill passed 58-11 with 6 voting present. Representatives also voted for House Bill 1623 by Rep. Bob Johnson, D-Jacksonville, which states that a state agency that posts information on its website has complied with the FOIA without having to produce the requested materials. It advanced 79-6 with 2 voting present.

However, legislators voted against House Bill 1622 by Johnson, which would have allowed agencies up to 15 days to produce documents associated with large, burdensome FOIA requests instead of the three days currently required. The agency would have had to respond to the requestor with the cause of the delay. Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, said attorneys would use that language to their advantage. The bill failed 33-32 with 2 voting present.

House members also advanced House Bill 2112 by Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, which says a court cannot issue an arrest warrant for failure to pay court-ordered costs, fees, or fines for a criminal offense if the offender is incarcerated or hospitalized. The bill, sponsored and co-sponsored by the political odd couple of Walker and conservative Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, passed 91-1 with 2 voting present.

Legislators advanced a bill by Ballinger that would allow the sale of fireworks year-round when the seller occupies a permanent physical location. The bill would not pre-empt local ordinances. It passed 82-2 with 2 voting present.

Legislators also advanced House Bill 1575 by Lowery, which would have required school districts to maintain net legal balances of no more than 20% of their annual revenue. The bill initially failed 49-29 with 5 voting present but passed on reconsideration, 52-29 with 6 present.

A light-hearted debate occurred over a bill by Rep. Aaron Pilkington, R-Clarksville, that would designate the wood duck as the official state duck. Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, pressed the assembly to re-refer the bill to committee, arguing that the mallard is the duck most associated with the state’s duck hunting industry, though he “admitted” under questioning from Rep. Charles Blake, D-Little Rock, that the name of his company is “Mallard.” Rep. Mark McElroy, D-Tillar, said the wood duck should be the state duck because it remains in state while the mallard merely passes through, but Wardlaw argued that the wood duck also is migratory. Wardlaw’s argument carried the day on a voice vote.