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At a recent hearing on a proposed Constitutional Amendment to revamp the way the state allows petition drives to change state laws, set for the 2020 General Election Ballot, the words "left-leaning" escaped from the mouth of one of the state's most conservative state House members.

And there we go.

It is back to the old Liberal vs. Conservative prattle about petition drives to change the legal and constitutional landscape of Arkansas.

Since Arkansas was overtaken in both the state House of Representatives and state Senate by a Republican Party majority -- almost six years ago -- the state has also managed by a spurt of voter-led Constitutional Amendments and citizen-led initiatives to continue as if there was little change in political parties down in Little Rock.

How has this happened?

Largely, this has been done by citizen-led petitions to get issues on the state ballot, but that is only the start of this "left-leaning" spate of voter-approved acts in Arkansas.

What are these "left-leaning," issues, to date?

How about the approval of Medical Marijuana? Compare that issue to a scheduled raise in the minimum wages paid in the state? And how about the overwhelming approval of a "straw-horse" reform for ethics of lawmakers that turned largely into an extension for term limits for all state House and state Senate members.

Changing these laws solely within the 135 members of the General Assembly might be difficult, some say, if not down-right impossible.

Can you see the current state Legislature passing Medical Marijuana? Or even raising the state's minimum wage by the same as the petition process?

Changing the laws by the citizen-led petition process, some lawmakers grumble, is easier and more permanent and often less restrictive than the current political party in control would like.

But the proposed changes might make such petition changes harder for change.

The proposal for the 2020 General Election ballot would limit such petition drives for changes in the state laws and constitution to:

• Require that a petition must contain valid signatures equaling at least half of the required percentage of signatures from each of 45 counties instead of the current requirement of 15 counties;

• Require a three-fifths vote of both chambers of the legislature to refer a proposed constitutional amendment to voters;

• Eliminate the option for petitioners to collect extra signatures for 30 days if the petition fails to meet the signature requirement but the petition has at least 75 percent of the valid signatures needed;

• Require challenges to the sufficiency of any ballot measure to be filed no later than April 15 of the election year; and

• Require signatures for citizen initiative petitions to be submitted to the secretary of state by Jan. 15 of the election year rather than the current deadline of four months before the election.

Some very restrictive and often cumbersome hills to climb say some of the most successful ballot initiative leaders.

So how successful have been these citizen initiatives in Arkansas?

Well, very successful, in fact.

From 1996 through 2018, 15 citizen initiatives (initiated state statutes and initiated constitutional amendments) appeared on the ballot in Arkansas. Voters approved nine and rejected six of the initiatives.

All of the initiatives were on the ballot for general elections during even-numbered election years. The approval rate at the ballot box was 60% during the 22-year period from 1996 through 2018.

The rejection rate was 40%.

Of the 15 total citizen initiatives, eight were constitutional amendments and seven were state statutes. The constitutional amendments had a 50% approval rate with voters approving four and rejecting the other four. Of the state statutes, five were approved and two were defeated for an approval rate of 71.43%.

But hang on, there is going to be more discussion about these Constitutional and Initiative petition processes in our state.

Not everyone likes the fact that change can be enacted by voters at the ballot box -- rather than on the floor of the state House or state Senate.

• • •

Maylon Rice is a former journalist who worked for several northwest Arkansas publications. He can be reached via email at maylontrice@yahoo.com. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

Editorial on 05/15/2019

Print Headline: Constitutional conundrum afoot, laws by petitions

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