On the ballot in November will be a Constitutional Amendment sponsored by Republican Representative DeAnn Vaught, an amendment that is basically a “petition killer.” The amendment is entitled “The Initiative Process and Legislative Referral Requirements Amendment,” will make the following changes for citizen initiative petitions: It will shorten the time period allowed to gather petitions. Currently you have until four months before the election (July) to turn petitions in. This would require they be submitted by January 15 of the election year. It will increase the number of counties needed to gather signatures in from 15 up to 2/3rds of the counties in the state (45 counties). And finally, it will eliminate the 30-day period that the Arkansas Constitution currently provides for gathering additional signatures if the threshold isn’t met.
The effect of these changes will be significant on both the political and economic health of the state. Those who are interested in economic or social issues will lose their petition rights and ballot access guaranteed by the state constitution. Only organizations or special interest groups with lots of money and influence in the legislature will be able to do so. This effort by the legislature is nothing more than voter suppression on a statewide scale. Two examples from 2018 will highlight both the positive impact of having a citizen initiated petition process and the negative impact of one sponsored by special interests.
On the positive side, Arkansas Ballot Issue 5, the Minimum Wage Increase was on the November ballot in 2018 as an initiated state statute. As approved the ballot initiative incrementally raised the minimum wage in Arkansas to $11 an hour by 2021. Raising the minimum wage was one way to benefit current workers and future retirees as it not only increased their average indexed monthly earning which is used to determine the retirement benefits of future retirees, but it also increased the current earning of all families, their saving and ultimately their level of financial wealth.
By contrast, Arkansas Ballot Issue 1, an Amendment Concerning Civil Lawsuits and the Powers of the General Assembly and Supreme Court to Adopt Court Rules, was a legislature-initiated statute, but whose main supporters were the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce, the Arkansas Trucking Association, the Arkansas Medical Society, and the Arkansas Hospital Association. Although the state Supreme Court ruled against Ballot Issue 1, it still has relevance to the issue at hand.
The intent of the ballot initiative was to change the Arkansas Constitution to limit attorney fees in certain law suits, to limit how much juries can award people in certain law suits and make it easier for the state legislature to change rules established by the Arkansas Supreme Court. Critics of Issue 1, were correct when they claimed restricting awards would infringe on the rights of citizens seeking redress in the courts.
The citizens’ initiative petition does not exist at the federal level. No federal elections have ballot measures to raise issues such as the federal minimum wage, or paid maternity leave, but this process does exist at the state level. Defeating this proposed amendment will not protect us from amendments sponsored by special interests that work against the public’s welfare. Only vigilance on election day will do that.
But, by defeating this amendment we preserve our ability to propose changes to our political and economic system, which, while they may be opposed by the state legislature, may be supported by an overwhelming majority of the state’s residence. Would, a citizen-initiated petition on tax reform support a more progressive income tax or an Earned Income Tax Credit in Arkansas, something the state legislature has never proposed?
Passing this amendment would eliminate the possibility that the citizens of Arkansas may themselves propose and get a successful vote on such proposals. With an enlightened and altruistic legislature such an amendment would never have been considered. The fact that this amendment is on the ballot speaks volumes about our legislature.