An Arkansas House committee advanced what would become the third constitutional amendment referred to voters this legislative session – one meant to make it harder to amend the Constitution.
House Joint Resolution 1008 by Rep. DeAnn Vaught, R-Horatio, passed the House State Agencies & Governmental Affairs Committee on a voice vote Wednesday (April 3). If it passes both the House and Senate, it would be considered by voters in November 2020.
Sen. Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, the Senate co-sponsor, told the committee the amendment would make four changes to the amendment process.
– First, it would increase the number of counties from 15 to 45 where the qualifying percentage of signatures from legal voters must be collected.
– Second, it would require a three-fifths vote in both the House and the Senate to refer amendments to voters, as opposed to the current simple majority.
– Third, it would remove the cure period where citizen-led efforts can collect additional signatures from qualified voters to make up for signatures the secretary of state’s office deems invalid.
– Fourth, it would move the deadline for citizens to submit a proposed amendment up to Jan. 15 of the election year, and require legal challenges to be filed April 15.
The amendment now will be be considered by the full House.
Legislators can refer up to three amendments to the voters and have already completed work on two. One would permanently extend the half-cent sales tax used to fund highways and local roads. The other would change the state’s legislative term limits by reducing the number of years legislators can serve to 12 years cumulative, but then they could return to service after a four-year break.
Pitsch told the committee that the Arkansas Constitution has been amended 20 times in the last seven elections, which is too many in his opinion. Changes that should have been done statutorily instead have been accomplished through the amendment process. He said constitutional amendments should have broad-based support. Recent efforts have been financed by well-funded interests and have resulted in changes that should not have happened, such as enshrining a company’s name in the Constitution, as occurred with the amendment allowing casino gaming passed by voters in 2018.
“The Constitution is meant to be sacred,” he said. “It shouldn’t be easy to amend. Our forefathers and our founders did not anticipate and could not have anticipated the vast level of special interest money and influence to take advantage of our citizens’ right to amend the Constitution.”
Pitsch told legislators that the sponsors had worked with the attorney general’s office, governor’s office, secretary of state, Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners and the Bureau of Legislative Research.
Speaking against the bill was Jerry Cox, executive director of the Family Council. Cox said the resolution has some good aspects but doesn’t solve many of the problems it was written to fix. He said he had participated in five ballot measures and could still write a specific name into the Constitution under this proposed amendment. It would not regulate paid canvassers and canvassing organizations. He said most amendments have been referred by the Legislature, not citizens. Well-financed efforts would have no problem validating 45 counties, Cox said.
Instead, legislators should raise the threshold for passage of an amendment to 60% of the voters, rather than the current majority vote, he said. Cox pointed to another proposed amendment, House Joint Resolution 1023 by Rep. Jon Eubanks, R-Paris, that included that provision.
“I just think you’re missing the target with 1008,” Cox said.
But Pitsch said the bill’s sponsors had been told by attorneys that many solutions legislative sponsors had considered ran into legal issues. For example, the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause protects paid canvassers from various types of government interference.
Pitsch later told Talk Business & Politics that he had also wanted to raise the threshold for voter approval to 60%, but attorneys had said that couldn’t be done because past amendments were passed with 50% support.
“We had a bunch of legal minds in the room that worked on that bill for over six weeks trying to get it to where it is today,” he said.
Eubanks, a committee member, told the committee that while he is the sponsor of HJR 1023, he believed Vaught’s and Pitsch’s HJR 1008 had the best chance of meeting the legal criteria.