A constitutional amendment that would make it harder to amend the Arkansas Constitution or pass an initiated act passed the House of Representatives. Members voted 74-18-1 on Thursday (April 15) to advance House Joint Resolution 1005.
The Constitutional Amendment and Ballot Initiative Reform Amendment by Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, would raise the bar for amending the Constitution or passing a voter-led initiated act from the 50% to 60%. Referenda, where voters review a legislative act, would continue to require only a 50% threshold. The measure would apply to ballot measures whether they are referred by the Legislature or the voters, Ray said. He said referenda would have a lower threshold because they are a defensive measure.
“It is a much-needed safeguard for our initiative and constitutional amendment process,” he said.
Ray said the amendment is needed because it is too easy to amend the Arkansas Constitution. He noted that the Arkansas Constitution has been amended 102 times, while the revered and older U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times. He said the state’s lenient rules make it vulnerable to “big money and out-of-state interests that would want to highjack our process and push their own pet projects and hobby horse issues.”
Ray said a California billionaire who might want universal basic income or “Medicare for all” enacted across the country might be attracted to Arkansas because of its easy ballot access laws, small size and inexpensive media markets. He said the state could become like California, which he said is “practically ungovernable” because of its lax initiative and amendment process. Ray said the amendment is modeled on a similar amendment adopted by Florida in 2006.
No one spoke against the resolution. It now heads to the Senate.
In response, the sponsor of several citizen-led initiatives said in an interview he will push for an amendment streamlining the signature collection process, raising the bar for legislators to amend initiated acts from the current two-thirds to three-fourths, and barring lawmakers from amending an amendment. David Couch, who helped lead successful efforts to increase the minimum wage and legalize medical marijuana, said legislators have tried to make it harder to vote this session and often try to make it harder for citizens to pass ballot initiatives.
“They’re trying to stop something they don’t like,” he said. “That’s all it is. … They do not like direct democracy. They do not like people raising the minimum wage. They don’t like people voting for medical marijuana, which I would suspect has probably been the biggest economic boom in Arkansas in a very long time.”
Couch agreed that perhaps it should be harder to amend the Constitution, but 60% is too high a threshold. He said the Legislature is already trying to make it harder to amend the Constitution. Senate Bill 614 by Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, excludes individuals with a disqualifying offense from being a paid signature collector. He said that provision eliminates a lot of Arkansans.
Lawmakers can refer up to three constitutional amendments to voters each session.
The Senate Committee on State Agencies delayed until Monday advancing another proposed constitutional amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 10 by Davis, because of a procedural issue related to an amendment to the resolution. SJR 10 would allow the Legislature to call itself into special session to consider any issue through a joint proclamation by the speaker of the House and the Senate president pro tempore. Its original version, previously passed by the committee, also would have allowed the Legislature to call itself into special session with the signatures of two-thirds of the members of both the House and Senate.
The Legislature can now be called into special session only by the governor. Gov. Asa Hutchinson expressed opposition to the resolution April 15, saying, “In Arkansas our current Constitution provides for a part-time Legislature that meets in general session once every two years and in fiscal session in the alternating years. I see no need for a change.”