Seven measures filed for proposed constitutional amendment changes with Wednesday deadline looming

by Ronak Patel ([email protected]) 1,920 views 

During the 2023 legislative session, Arkansas lawmakers will determine which issues they want to refer to voters on the 2024 ballot, but a looming deadline may limit those choices.

The Arkansas General Assembly may refer three amendment proposals for voter consideration per regular legislative session, although they can choose not to refer three.

The legislature referred three issues to Arkansas voters during the 2022 mid terms. The issues included whether the legislature should have the ability to call itself into session, a religious freedom amendment, and whether to increase the threshold to pass ballot initiatives. All three of the proposals referred to voters by the legislature failed to pass.

This year, there have been five bills filed so far that could be referred for potential changes to the 1874 Arkansas Constitution. Wednesday (Feb. 8) is the deadline to file proposals for lawmakers to consider. Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, and chair of the Senate State Agencies & Governmental Affairs Committee that will hear proposals, said he will narrow down which bills will receive a hearing after the Wednesday filing deadline. He will also have a better idea of when hearings will take place for the bills once the deadline passes, he said.

Rep. Dwight Tosh, R-Jonesboro, chair of the House State Agencies & Governmental Affairs Committee, shared the same sentiment as Johnson and said he would have a better idea of when hearings and votes will take place for the bills after the filing deadline. Tosh did say he wants to do multiple rounds of hearings. The first round will give every sponsor of the bill a chance to explain their proposed constitutional amendment without votes being cast. A second round will include hearings where votes will be taken.

Every other General Assembly, either the House or Senate State Agencies panel gets to refer two of the three possible proposals, if they can agree. This year, the House will get to refer two proposals assuming there is consensus.

• SJR1 – Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, would create the Arkansas Apportionment Commission through a constitutional amendment, if approved by voters.

The state now uses the Arkansas Board of Apportionment to help lawmakers redraw House and Senate district lines. According to SJR1, the members of the Board of Apportionment – which consist of the Governor, Attorney General and Secretary of State – would appoint nine members of the Apportionment Commission. Support staff needed by the commission would be provided by the Secretary of State’s office. The members appointed to the commission are not allowed to be lobbyists, elected officials who are in office at the time, or a county official elected in the past two years.

During the process of redistricting, lawmakers are tasked with drawing district lines for the Senate and House that will keep the population for the districts. Data from the Census that is conducted every ten years is used to create the maps.

SJR1 would require the commission members to take an oath to affirm their decisions will be politically neutral. The Apportionment Board will have the ability to decide whether to accept recommendations from the commission.

• SJR2 – Sen. John Payton, R-Wilburn, filed a bill that would let voters decide the procedure to recall elected officials including the governor, attorney general, secretary of state, justices of the Supreme Court and members of the legislature.

According to the bill, voters will be able to initiate the recall of an elected official through a petition. The petition must have at least 25% of the votes cast for governor in the most recent election the sitting governor was elected. The petition must be approved by the Secretary of State. If the Secretary of State is the subject of the recall, then the Attorney General will handle approving the petition.

• SJR3 – Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, is the author of this relatively short amendment proposal that addresses transaction rights in the context of personal and religious beliefs. The proposal says “an individual shall not be denied the right to conduct a transaction based upon his or her personal opinions or beliefs, including without limitation his or her religious beliefs.”

• SJR4 – This measure, filed by Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, does away with party primaries. All candidates for Congress, Senate, constitutional offices, state legislators, prosecutors and judges, and county officials would appear on the primary ballot. The top two vote-getters per office would advance to the general election. Presidential candidates and municipal candidates are excluded from this process. There are other provisions in the bill to spell out the voting process as well as how political parties will choose delegates for their Presidential candidates.

• HJR1001 – Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, filed a measure to strip the authority of the Independent Citizens Commission, which was set up to control and oversee salaries for elected officials in the state. Ray’s proposal would give the General Assembly the authority to set salaries for state lawmakers, elected constitutional officers, justices of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, and prosecuting attorneys.

• HJR1002 – Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, filed HJR1002, which would allow voters to vote on changes to property taxes. According to the bill, an amendment to the Arkansas Constitution would authorize the legislature to reduce or eliminate the taxation of personal property. Lawmakers would be required to eliminate taxes on personal property by 2050.

Property taxes will still be able to be levied at the city level. A petition would have to be filed by local voters, which can’t go over an increase of five mills.

• HJR1003, with Rep. Fran Cavenaugh, R-Walnut Ridge, as lead sponsor, has been filed in the House and is similar to SJR2. Payton is a co-sponsor for the bill. The House version of the bill adds that after a failed recall of an official, another recall petition can’t be filed against that official for the rest of their term in office.

There are 19 states that allow for the recall of state officials, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Recalls for state officials are typically unsuccessful, with Gov. Gavin Newsom, D-California, and Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wisconsin, surviving their recalls, which are the most recent cases.