Highway tax amendment advances; Hendren says two others in line to be referred
A proposed constitutional amendment letting Arkansas voters choose to permanently extend a half-cent sales tax for highways took another step closer to the ballot box Wednesday (March 6). Also, the Senate president pro tempore said changes to term limits and the ballot initiative process are the front runners to be the Legislature’s two other proposed amendments.
House Joint Resolution 1018 by Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, passed the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee on a voice vote and now heads to the full Senate. It has already passed the House.
The amendment would raise about $205 million annually as part of a $300 million highway program advanced by Gov. Asa Hutchinson. The program also would provide $110 million annually for cities and counties.
If it passes, voters would vote on permanently extending the half-cent sales tax in November 2020. The tax was approved by 58% of the voters in 2012 and expires in 2023.
Speaking in support of the resolution were Randy Zook, Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce president and CEO; Shannon Newton, Arkansas Trucking Association president; Stanley Hill with Arkansas Farm Bureau; and Mark Hayes, Arkansas Municipal League executive director.
Ryan Norris with the state chapter of the anti-tax group Americans for Prosperity spoke against the bill.
Legislators can refer up to three amendments to the voters. The highway tax originated in the House and another would originate in the Senate. Both require only majority support in both chambers. Under current legislative rules, a third referral would require two-thirds support in both chambers.
The governor is a strong supporter of HJR 1018. He said Wednesday he would not get involved in the debate over which should be the other two proposals.
“I think there’s some wisdom in saying I had to have this half-cent sales tax,” he said. “They put a priority on this. They gave it early consideration. And the other two amendments, I’m going to leave that to legislative discretion. Not going to weigh in on that, and I know that there’s three or four that are being considered, so I’ll let them have that debate.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, said the leading contenders among other proposed amendments are Senate Joint Resolution 10 by Sen. Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, which would change the state’s process for amending the Constitution; and Senate Joint Resolution 15 by Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, which would change the state’s term limits law.
Hendren said legislators are concerned that out-of-state groups and special interests are using their resources to enact ballot initiatives.
SJR 10 would make it harder to amend the state’s Constitution by requiring petitioners to file petitions bearing the signatures of 6% of the previous election’s voters in three-fifths of the state’s counties, or 45. Currently, it’s 15 counties.
It also would move the filing date for citizen initiatives from the current four months before the election to Jan. 15. Legal challenges would have to be filed by April 15 of the year of the election. Finally, it would require a three-fifths majority of legislators to refer an amendment to the voters.
Pitsch said the state has amended its Constitution 20 times in the last seven election cycles, which is too many. He said his amendment would ensure a broader base of support by requiring more counties to submit enough signatures.
“To me, a Constitution is supposed to be written in granite and changed with the masses and a plurality of people,” he said.
Pitsch’s is one of several proposed amendments regarding the amendment process.
Meanwhile, SJR 15 would limit legislators elected on or after Jan. 1, 2021, to 12 consecutive years of service in the House and Senate, with the ability to return to service after four years out of office. The amendment also would limit judicial terms to 12 years, with the ability to return after four years. It also would reserve for the Legislature alone the ability to propose constitutional amendments changing legislative and judicial term limits. Voters would still decide on whether to approve those amendments.
Hendren said negotiations are ongoing regarding some of the amendment’s details. He said legislators recognize the need to address voter concerns regarding the issue.
Arkansas voters first enacted one of the nation’s toughest term limits laws in 1992 – three two-year terms in the House and two four-year terms in the Senate.
They voted in 2016 to lengthen the amount of time legislators could serve to 16 total years – and in some cases longer – as part of a wide-ranging “ethics” amendment. In 2018, the group Arkansas Term Limits attempted to limit terms to 10 total years, arguing that the ethics amendment had hidden the term limits extension.
If it had passed, up to 62 House members and 23 senators would be in their final terms. But the Supreme Court threw that amendment off the ballot, ruling that a special master had been correct in saying supporters had not gathered enough signatures to qualify.
Hendren said legislators believe they need to “show a good faith effort to the folks that we support term limits.” Otherwise, Arkansas Term Limits will return with an even more limiting amendment.
“We probably should try to fix this, or we may not like the solution that is imposed on the Legislature,” he said.
Legislators referred an amendment limiting lawsuit awards during the 2018 elections, but the Supreme Court threw that tort reform measure off the ballot after both sides spent millions of dollars campaigning for and against it.
Several of the proposed amendments dealt with tort reform, but Hendren said support for that issue is limited.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of appetite right now to tackle that again,” he said. “It’s been a battle for the last four years out in the open and I think people are ready to let the dust settle a little bit and digest the court decisions and then come back maybe after people have recovered from the hangover of continuing to try that.”