State Ballot Issues – Not a Good One Among Them

Your ballot will have three proposed amendments to the Arkansas Constitution submitted by the Arkansas legislature. While we oppose two of them, the other one is just not worth a “Yes” vote.

The bad ones? Issue 1 imposes a tax and Issue 3 makes too many changes to how the people propose ballot initiatives,

An the one not worth your time? Issue 2 changes term limits for legislators. The proposal is known to be deceptive, but does it strengthen or weaken term limits? Depends on who you ask.

ISSUE 1 – The Transportation Sales Tax Continuation Amendment

Issue 1 is a real dog!  Using the word “continuation” in the title is supposed to make you think voting for the tax is no big deal.  This tax is not just a big deal it is a HUGE DEAL.

First, Arkansas has one of the highest sales taxes in the nation.  A temporary one-half percent (0.05%) sales tax for certain road projects is scheduled to end sometime in 2022. But if Issue 1 passes a new tax will take its place.

Second, don’t forget the legislature already raised the tax on gasoline and diesel fuel in 2019 to provide more money to highways.

Third and most importantly, even if you would be okay with keeping sales taxes high to give more money to the transportation department, you will still not want to vote for Issue 1. Why? Because it will put the tax in the Arkansas Constitution and putting a tax in the constitution is always a very bad idea.

Once in the constitution it will be nearly impossible to ever change.  That is very bad news for the Arkansas state budget during an emergency, such as this pandemic, because even with dwindling tax collections, this tax could not be shifted to more important needs. While basic needs are not met during the emergency, money under this tax would keep accumulating for highways and roads and could not be used for anything else.

Fourth, there was no need to try to put the tax in the constitution. If the legislature is convinced in 2021 a tax is necessary, then they can pass one by a simple law (which can be changed in the future if necessary) and the tax can go into effect in 2022 at the same time Issue 1 is scheduled to be collected.

Issue 1 is a very bad idea that only came about because legislators wanted a way to get the tax passed without being blamed for imposing the tax themselves.

There is no good excuse for putting a tax in the Constitution. We oppose Issue 1.

ISSUE 2 – The State Legislative Term Limits Amendment

Issue 2 has been recognized as being deceptive and will cause voter confusion, but the court did not strike it off the ballot because, unlike amendments proposed by the people, the court only strikes down a legislative proposal if it is so deceptive as to be considered a “manifest fraud upon the public.”

Issue 2 will confuse both supporters and opponents of term limits.

The current term limit for Arkansas State Senators and Representatives is sixteen (16) years. Issue 2 would reduce their term limits to twelve (12) years. Sounds good right? Not so fast say critics.  Critics say another provision in the proposal is tantamount to abolishing term limits.

Under current term limits once a legislator reaches the limit the official is permanently ineligible to serve in the legislature.  Under Issue 2 a legislator can return to the legislature after sitting out one election. After the legislator sets out one election the legislator gets a fresh twelve-year period.

Some critics say it has been fairly easy for legislators to come back with the help of special interests. They would point out that several termed-out legislators were able to return to the legislature once term limits were lengthened to sixteen years.

Issue 2 was proposed as an alternative to a threatened initiative that would have cut legislative term limits to ten years. The initiative never got off the ground. Now that the threat is gone, legislators will probably be relatively happy about term limits whether Issue 2 passes or fails.

Despite the shorter term limit the ability to keep coming back, especially when a spouse fills the gap, probably makes this term limit proposal even weaker then the current provision. However, Conduit For Action is not taking a position on this deceptive amendment.

Note: Legislative term limits both now and under Issue 2 will still be much longer than those for the seven state officials in the executive branch. Term limits in the executive branch are two four-year terms. Legislative term limits were lengthened to sixteen years in an amendment that was supposed to be about ethics.

ISSUE 3. The Initiative Process and Legislative Referral Requirements Amendment

Issue 3 has three parts.  First and foremost, Issue 3 imposes restrictions making it harder for the people to propose a law or amendment to the Constitution. Second, it increases the vote required for the legislature to propose an amendment to the constitution. Third, it requires challenges to the sufficiency of any ballot measure to be filed no later than April 15 of the election year.

Overall, the negative things about Issue 3 far outweigh any positive parts.

Restriction on initiatives by the people. Is it good or bad to make it harder for the people to propose law by initiative petition? While Conduit for Action has opposed several initiatives that have made their way on the ballot, that does not mean we support making it harder for initiatives to get on the ballot.

The restrictions in Issue 3 are heavy handed and are likely to kill the initiative process. We oppose this move.

Remember Arkansas was only able to get an ethics law though the initiative process in 1988 and was only able to create the Arkansas Ethics Commission by an initiative of the people in 1990. Fortunately, Arkansas had the initiative process because legislature rejected passing comprehensive ethics legislation. Unfortunately, the legislature has been chipping at the ethics law ever since.

Legislation in 2019 concerning background checks for people who circulate petitions had the effect of stopping all initiatives that would have otherwise had enough signatures to get on the ballot.

The restrictions in Issue 3 are much more severe and we think is intended to end the initative process. Issue 3 includes these changes for initiative petitions:

  • Petitions must be filed earlier. Currently petitions may be submitted no later than four months before the election. Under Issue 3 the petitions must be submitted no later than January 15 in the year of the election.
  • Dramatically increases the number of counties from which petitions must contain signatures equaling at least half of the required percentage of signatures for that county. Currently the petitions must meet the threshold in fifteen counties; this increases it to forty-five counties.
  • Eliminates the ability of petitioners to collect extra signatures for thirty days if the petition initially comes up short on the required valid signatures.

Vote required for legislature to propose an amendment. Currently the legislature can propose amendments to the Arkansas Constitution by a majority vote of each chamber.  Issue 3 would require a 3/5ths vote of each chamber. While we think it is a good idea to require a higher vote in the legislature, we do not think this requirement would stop many legislative proposals. In many cases such proposals have already passed by a three fifths vote. We do not think the requirement would be much of a speed bump for the legislature.  With the ability to pass three amendments, there is already a lot of “you vote for my proposal and I will vote for yours.”

Court challenges to ballot measures.  Issue 3 would require challenges to the sufficiency of a ballot measure to be filed no later than April 15 of the election year. We think having a deadline would be good, but the bad parts of the proposal far outweigh any small benefit from this part.

Late court challenges have long been a big frustration for sponsors of ballot issues. Frequently there will be an issue on the ballot that has been struck down and the votes for it will not be counted. Most voters aren’t concerned about these late court challenges, but it makes a difference to groups that spend lots of time, effort, and money to put something on the ballot only to see it knocked off the ballot at the last minute.

Be informed and go vote.

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