92nd General Assembly refers three constitutional amendment proposals

By Lindsey Bailey, AAC General Counsel

The Regular Session of the 92nd General Assembly has come and gone, and you all will get more updates on the products of the session than you probably care to. No doubt, you will hear much debate in the next 18 months over the three constitutional amendments referred to the voters by the General Assembly to be placed on the 2020 general election ballot.

HJR1018, of particular interest to the counties, is an amendment to continue a levy of a one-half percent sales tax for the state’s highways, county roads, and city streets. In 2012, the voters passed Amendment 91 to implement a statewide one-half percent sales tax to build and maintain a four-lane highway system, county roads and city streets across the state. Amendment 91 authorized up to $1.3 billion in general obligation bonds to fund these projects, and to be repaid by the one-half percent sales tax over a period of 10 years. Seventy percent of net revenues go to the Arkansas Department of Transportation for four-lane highways, with 15 percent transferred to counties and 15 percent to cities for use on local roads, streets, and bridges. This amendment had a sunset of 2023.

HJR1018 simply seeks to make permanent that Amendment 91 one-half percent sales tax to continue funding state four-lane highways as well as local roads, streets, and bridges. This referral is a part of the Governor’s highway funding plan. It is worth reiterating that this measure would not create a new sales tax, but simply make permanent the 10-year sales tax the people voted for in 2012.

The second issue referred to the ballot is SJR15, to amend term limits for members of the General Assembly. In 2014, the people passed Issue 3, or Amendment 94, primarily known as an ethics reform amendment, banning gifts to elected officials, among other reforms. Also included in this Amendment were term limits set for members of the General Assembly, prohibiting a member from serving more than 16 years total in the House of Representatives, Senate, or a combination of both, replacing the previous term limits of six years in the House and eight years in the Senate. It has been widely speculated that the people, voting on an ethics reform amendment, did not realize that it also extended term limits for members of the General Assembly.

In response, a citizen-initiated proposed amendment led by Arkansas Term Limits and U.S. Term Limits was introduced in 2018 to set term limits at no more than six years in the House, or eight years in the Senate, but no more than a combination of 10 total years in the General Assembly. Ultimately, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck this issue from appearing on the ballot due to errors regarding signatures collected, leaving an insufficient number of signatures to place the initiative on the ballot.

In response to the backlash from the 2014 ethics reform/term limits confusion, the 92nd General Assembly chose to refer its own term limits amendment to the people, SJR15, to be known as the Arkansas Term Limits Amendment. In short, this amendment would limit the number of years a member of the General Assembly first elected in 2021 or later could serve consecutively at 12 years. After a cooling off period of four years, a former member could run and be elected again, up to another 12 consecutive years. It is likely the organizations behind the 2018 term limits attempt will collect signatures again on the same 10-year term limits proposal, which could lead to voter confusion if two term limits amendments appear on the same ballot.

The third and final referral by the 92nd General Assembly to the voters is HJR1008, to amend the process for submission and approval of proposed constitutional amendments, making it more difficult for a proposal to actually reach the ballot. It raises the threshold for constitutional amendments referred by the General Assembly from a simple majority to a three-fifths vote of each chamber. The issue also amends the process for citizen-led initiatives: in addition to the signature threshold of at least 10 percent of statewide voters in the last gubernatorial election, at least 45 of the 75 counties would have to approve the proposal, an increase from the 15 counties required currently. It also requires that these petitions be filed with the Secretary of State by Jan. 15 of the election year, as opposed to the current deadline of four months prior to the election; requires that a challenge to a petition be filed no later than April 15; and eliminates the 30-day “cure period” in which a sponsor can gather more signatures if they fall short of the signature threshold, but reach at least 75 percent of signatures required.

These three referrals will likely be joined by a couple or more citizen-led initiatives on the 2020 ballot, and with it being a presidential election year, you can count on high voter turnout, and in turn, plenty of advertising for and against the proposals by the organizations affected. The Association of Arkansas Counties does not support or oppose proposed constitutional amendments referred to the people, but strives to keep its members informed.

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