The third time may be a charm for a group wanting to repeal the LEARNS Act, but Attorney General Tim Griffin has warned that their lengthy ballot title could be a deterrent for qualification.
In an opinion released Monday (June 5), Griffin approved the 16-page, 8,154 word ballot title for CAPES (Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students), a group wanting to use the Arkansas Constitution’s referendum process to give voters a chance to vote for or against Gov. Sarah Sanders’ signature education law.
It is CAPES third attempt to get a ballot title qualified to begin the petition process for a referendum issue to overturn LEARNS.
“You have submitted a third version of your proposed measure to refer Act 237 of 2023. In Opinion No. 2023-029, I concluded that your popular name was sufficient as submitted and that your ballot title could not be certified. The prior version of your ballot title was 742 words. The current version — which is 8,154 words and spans 16 pages — is attached,” Griffin said in a letter to CAPES Chair Veronica McClane.
Griffin spelled out several examples of the Arkansas Supreme Court kicking lengthy titles off the ballot for simply being too long and confusing for voters to understand. But, he said, he is not authorized by the legislature to reject a ballot title on the grounds of its length or complexity.
“Therefore, like one of my predecessors, I must highlight the ‘particular hazards attendant to the preparation of a ballot title for a lengthy and complex proposal’ like you are attempting to refer to the voters. As the Court has noted, some measures ‘preclude the writing of an acceptable ballot title.’ But the legislature has not authorized me to reject a ballot title because of its length and complexity. As my predecessor noted, whether your proposal is the kind for which it is impossible to write a sufficiently complete and brief ballot title ‘is a matter to be decided by the Arkansas Supreme Court,'” he wrote.
In a statement announcing approval of the ballot title, Griffin said, “The legislature has authorized the Attorney General to reject a ballot title for only one reason: if it is misleading. Because this ballot title largely cuts and pastes at great length from LEARNS, I cannot conclude that it is misleading. I have therefore certified it. My certification does not mean the ballot title meets all of the requirements of legal sufficiency set out in Arkansas Supreme Court precedent, including the requirement that ballot titles not be too lengthy or complex. This ballot title, which is more than 8,000 words, is the longest in Arkansas history by a large margin. The Court has cited length and complexity as major factors in rejecting ballot titles with 550, 587, 709 and 727 words. The Arkansas Supreme Court will be the sole arbiter of whether this ballot title is too lengthy and complex if it is challenged at a later stage in the referendum process.”
The LEARNS Act, among many other provisions, creates “education freedom accounts” giving families access to about $7,000 for non-public school options. It also increases the minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000 and provides every teacher making more than $50,000 a $2,000 raise. It enhances reading literacy efforts, provides funding for school safety features, and invests in workforce training.
CAPES is attempting to use a constitutional lever known as the referendum process that allows citizen initiatives to challenge enacted laws to be submitted to voters. The window for qualifying is narrow.
CAPES has 90 days from when the Legislature adjourned sine die on May 1 to gain approval and to collect the 54,244 signatures required by the Constitution. That’s 6% of the total votes cast in the last governor’s election.
With the AG’s approval of the ballot title, signature collections can begin. Those signatures will have to be collected from 50 counties instead of 15 counties due to a new state law, which itself may be challenged due to an emergency clause vote.
The referendum section of the Constitution deals specifically with overturning “any general act, or any item of an appropriation bill, or measure passed by the General Assembly.”
Under the referendum process, if the group seeking the referendum petition is certified by the Secretary of State, the measure they seek to overturn “shall remain in abeyance until such vote is taken,” which would be the general election of 2024.
Alexa Henning, spokesperson for Gov. Sanders, provided the following statement to Talk Business & Politics.
“The governor spoke about LEARNS for two years while campaigning and promised to deliver bold, transformational reforms to our education system and that’s exactly what the people of Arkansas elected her to do. It’s ironic the same opponents of LEARNS that complained about reading 144 pages of a bill, now submitted a ballot title of more than 8,000 words, which is the longest in Arkansas history. The radical left are playing political games with our kids’ futures and sowing unnecessary turmoil in schools,” Henning said.
Talk Business & Politics has reached out to CAPES chairperson Veronica McClane and will update this story with her comments later today.