Sides disagree on Issue 2: Needed reform, or attack on democracy?

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 1,202 views 

Groups are forming on both sides of Issue 2, a proposed constitutional amendment that would make it harder to amend the Arkansas Constitution and for voters to pass an initiated act.

The proposed amendment would increase the majority needed to pass amendments from the current simple majority to 60%. The 60% threshold would apply to amendments initiated by citizens as well as those referred to voters by legislators.

Issue 2 also would increase the required threshold for passage of initiated acts from a simple majority to 60%. An initiated act is a law placed on the ballot by citizens after a signature gathering process that then is passed by voters.

A Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College Poll conducted last week showed Issue 2 was supported by 32% of voters and opposed by 32%. The remaining 36% surveyed were undecided.

Legislative question committees have formed to both support and oppose the amendment.

Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, and Sen. Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, have formed Defend AR Constitution in support of Issue 2. The group filed a statement of organization with the Arkansas Ethics Commission Aug. 3. Ray said in an interview Sept. 21 that Defend AR Constitution has “lots of folks that want to be helpful” and he hopes to raise enough money for a media buy.

“We certainly hope so,” he said. “If I didn’t think there was any support for it, I wouldn’t have created a ballot committee.”

Protect AR Rights, a coalition opposing the amendment, filed a statement of organization Sept. 9. It includes Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, AR NAACP, Arkansas Education Association, Arkansas United, Arkansas Citizens First Congress, For AR People, Arkansas Public Policy Panel, AAUW of Arkansas, Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, Indivisible of LR and Central AR, and Arkansas Community Organization.

Kymara Seals, a policy director with the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, chairs the committee. In an online press conference Sept. 22, Seals said the group will run a grassroots campaign that includes door knocking, phone banking, text messaging and social media.

Ray said the proposed amendment is not particularly partisan. He said the U.S. Constitution outlines citizens’ basic rights and the government’s responsibilities, but the Arkansas Constitution has 100 amendments. He said a proposed amendment this year that would legalize recreational marijuana is one example of something that should be done through statute, not a constitutional amendment.

“Our Constitution is our state’s charter document, and it doesn’t need to read like a book of statutes,” he said.

Kwami Abdul-Bey, elections coordinator for Arkansas Public Policy Panel, said Arkansas has two forms of democracy: direct democracy led by the people, and representative democracy as practiced by elected representatives. He noted that the state’s motto is “Regnat populus,” or “The People Rule.”

He said Issue 2 would alter the balance in favor of representative democracy by requiring 60% majorities for measures voted on by citizens. It would create two tiers of citizens: the 135 elected to the Legislature, and everyone else, he said.

“We are opposed to any power being taken from the people, any power being restricted, any power being hampered, any power being in any way diminished,” he said.

He said the current system has worked fine and resulted in an increase in the minimum wage in 2018 and repealing the poll tax in 1964.

Joshua Ang Price, deputy director of the immigrants’ rights group Arkansas United, said the current system gives a voice to traditionally underrepresented minority communities who aren’t well represented in the Legislature. Adding 10% to the requirement would make it harder for minorities to get laws on the ballot that would benefit their communities.

Ray said Issue 2 will empower groups that are opposing it because most of the amendments passed in modern Arkansas history were referred by the Legislature, not initiated by citizens.

Among the legislatively referred amendments he said were bad ideas was the half-cent sales tax for highways passed in 2020, and an “ethics” amendment passed in 2014 that was sponsored by former state Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, who is now in federal prison.

“These left-wing groups who oppose Issue 2 clearly haven’t considered how Issue 2 would benefit their constituencies,” he said in a statement to Talk Business & Politics. “Issue 2 gives the voters even greater power to act as a check on the Legislature, which historically has proposed the majority of potential constitutional amendments. All Arkansans, regardless of their political affiliation, stand to benefit from a 60% passage threshold that ensures there is genuine consensus when we make changes to our constitution.”

Ray said he included the 60% threshold for initiated acts in the proposal because that process is subject to the same abuses as the constitutional amendment process. He said the efforts can be backed by big money and special interest groups, and voters can be misled by ballot titles. Legislators are reluctant to alter measures passed by the people, even if they become problematic.

“What happens is these groups will spend a ton of money over a relatively short period of time, and they will temporarily convince people that something is a good idea, enough that it squeaks by,” he said.

Abdul-Bey questioned what data exists that Arkansas citizens have been unduly influenced by outside interests. Meanwhile, laws were passed in the most recent legislative session that were part of a nationwide effort, he said. He said laws should be passed to prevent that kind of activity from happening.

Price said the proposed amendment only requires majority support – 50% plus one – but then would require all future amendments to pass with 60%. Ray said it would be unconstitutional to hold the amendment to a higher standard than the 1874 Arkansas Constitution allows.

“I have to adhere to the rules as they exist. … I think there’s a way to improve the rules, and that is what I have proposed,” he said.