Abortion amendment delivers signatures; FOIA, education, ‘pink’ tax fail

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 114 views 

Supporters of an amendment that would legalize abortion in Arkansas submitted signatures to qualify for the November ballot on Friday afternoon (July 5), the last day to do so.

However, efforts to change the state’s education system, enshrine the Freedom of Information Act into the Constitution, and remove the sales tax on diapers and feminine hygiene products, also known as the “pink tax,” fell short of the required number of signatures.

Earlier in the day, signatures were submitted by groups supporting proposed constitutional amendments that would expand medical marijuana access in Arkansas and would revoke the Pope County casino license while allowing for local option voting for casinos.

Arkansans for Limited Government, the group backing the Arkansas Abortion Amendment, submitted 101,525 signatures, officially qualifying in 53 counties, said Gennie Diaz, communications director.

Groups seeking to pass a constitutional amendment must collect 90,704 valid voter signatures, which is equal to 10% of the number of votes cast in the most recent governor’s election, with sufficient numbers in 50 counties.

Diaz said 83,000 of the signatures were collected by volunteers and the rest by paid canvassers. The group collected roughly 23,000 signatures in the last four days. She said the group deployed paid canvassers to smaller counties in the last month.

“We are very, very proud of that 53 number. We didn’t think it was doable, but it is,” she said.

The 50-county requirement is the result of Act 236 of 2023. It requires petitioners for constitutional amendments to collect signatures equal to 5% of the votes cast in that county in the most recent governor’s election.

Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, and the League of Women Voters have challenged that law’s constitutionality in court.

The secretary of state’s office has until Aug. 22 to certify the signatures as valid. Groups that reach the required number of 90,704 signatures but fall short of the threshold for valid ones have a 30-day cure period to collect the rest – but only if they reached 75% in the first round in both the state and in the 50 counties.

Diaz said her group will continue collecting signatures in case they are needed to qualify.

The proposed amendment would legalize abortion in Arkansas up to 18 weeks in the pregnancy and at any time in cases of rape, incest, a fatal fetal anomaly, or when the doctor determines the abortion is needed “to protect a pregnant female’s life or to protect a pregnant female from a physical disorder, physical illness, or physical injury.”

The amendment defines those three situations as those where continuing the pregnancy “will create a serious risk of substantial impairment of a major bodily function of a pregnant female.”

Abortion was banned in Arkansas in 2022 after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in another case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The decision triggered a law in Arkansas that banned abortions except when the woman’s life is in danger during a medical emergency.

Opponents of the proposed amendment include Stronger Arkansas, which is affiliated with Gov. Sarah Sanders, and the Family Council Action Committee.

The latter said in a press release that it would support and coordinate legal challenges if the amendment qualifies for the ballot.

Executive Director Jerry Cox said in the press release that the proposed amendment “prevents the State of Arkansas from restricting abortion during the first five months of pregnancy for any reason. That is more extreme than Roe v. Wade. The measure says abortions may be ‘assisted’ by a physician, and that abortions ‘may’ be performed in a hospital or other licensed healthcare facility. It does not say that abortions must be performed in these facilities, and it does not say that abortions must be performed by a doctor or even by a medical professional. In fact, the amendment does not contain any medical licensing or health and safety requirements for abortions. This measure endangers the lives of the very women its proponents purport to help.”

A group supporting the educational amendment collected 69,968 signatures and qualified in 55 counties, falling almost 21,000 signatures short of the total.

Bill Kopsky, treasurer of the For AR Kids campaign supporting the amendment, said more than 1,200 volunteers worked on the initiative. He said the group would attempt to pass the measure in the next election cycle but would start earlier.

“We are disappointed. We are also, though, really grateful, and we’re optimistic,” he said. “We’re not giving up, and we know most of Arkansans won’t either. We have a plan going forward to continue fighting for all of Arkansas’ kids and to honor the work of our volunteers and many supporters who signed our petitions.”

The proposed amendment would have required private schools that receive local and state funds to comply with state academic and accreditation standards, including student and school assessments. Failure to do so would result in a loss of state funds.

The amendment also would list as a state obligation four services: universal access to early childhood education from age 3 until a student qualifies for kindergarten; universal access to afterschool and summer programs; assistance to children within 200% of the federal poverty line; and supports and services for students with disabilities.

Also falling short was a proposal that would have enshrined the Freedom of Information Act in the Constitution while also passing an initiated act that would have provided administrative details.

An initiated act is a law passed by voters. For those, supporters must collect 72,563 signatures, or 8% of the votes cast in the most recent governor’s election, with 4% required in 50 counties. Arkansas Citizens for Transparency said in a press release that it would try again in two years.

Arkansas Press Association President Andrew Bagley said, “Polling shows that open government is immensely popular, and it is essential whether it’s at the Capitol or the local level. We look forward to working with the members of the General Assembly in the next session to preserve the people’s right to know, and I am proud to announce today that the Arkansans for a Free Press committee will continue organizing and will file an updated proposal and begin the process to try and qualify for the 2026 election.”

Also failing to achieve the minimum number of signatures was an initiated act that would have repealed the sales tax on feminine hygiene products and diapers, often referred to as the “pink” tax. The group collected 43,831 signatures and qualified in 19 counties.

Shannie Jackson with the Arkansas Period Poverty Project said her group did not have enough volunteers and got a late start in November. The Arkansas Period Poverty Project provides feminine hygiene products to lower income Arkansans and also provides menstrual education. She said this was her fourth attempt to remove the tax. Previous efforts have occurred in legislative sessions, and the group will try again in the next legislative session.

“Everything we did today mattered,” she said. “Even though we didn’t make it, this isn’t the last.”