Last time: Here’s what those amendments would do
With so many Arkansans already voting, is it too late for a column about the three proposed constitutional amendments that were submitted by legislators? For those who haven’t voted, here’s a fair and balanced review, with a bone to pick at the end.
Issue 1 would permanently extend a half-cent sales tax for roads that’s set to expire in 2023. The tax is projected to raise $205 million annually for state highways and $87 million that would be split between cities and counties.
Supporters including business groups and Gov. Asa Hutchinson say the money is needed to repair and expand roadways. Highways traditionally have been funded through user fees such as motor fuels taxes, but those revenues are declining as vehicles become more fuel efficient. They say the tax would make highways safer and reduce the need for auto repairs. The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the need for a strong highway network.
Opponents say the Constitution is no place for a permanent tax. If we must raise taxes for highways, it should be done through legislation that easily can be changed as circumstances change. Tax revenues should come through some type of user fee. Or, they should not be raised at all. If highways need more money, cut spending elsewhere. Some say government should instead encourage more environmentally sustainable forms of transportation.
Issue 2 would change the state’s term limits law for state legislators. Lawmakers currently can serve up to 16 years — longer in some senators’ cases. Then they’re banned for life. If Issue 2 passes, they could serve no more than 12 consecutive years, but then they could return after a four-year break. If they serve less than 12, they could return after any break. Issue 2 does not apply to members of Congress, whose terms aren’t limited.
Why support Issue 2? It lets constituents return good legislators to office. Experience helps, especially when someone is having a problem with the government and needs a legislator to intervene. However, the required breaks of service would prevent an incumbent from becoming entrenched.
Why oppose it? Term limits were created to prevent lawmakers from serving for decades and amassing power. The public didn’t ask for this change. Sixteen years is long enough.
Finally, Issue 3 would make it harder to amend the Arkansas Constitution and for citizens to create their own laws through the initiative and referral process. It would:
— Increase from 15 to 45 the number of counties where voter signatures must be collected.
— Eliminate the “cure period” that allows groups to collect more signatures if too many are disqualified by the secretary of state.
— Require citizen groups to submit the required number of signatures by Jan. 15 of the election year instead of July.
— Require 60% support for legislators to refer an amendment to voters, rather than the current 50%.
— Set April 15 as the deadline for filing lawsuits challenging the proposals.
It also removes the requirement that legislators’ proposed constitutional amendments be published in newspapers before the election.
Supporters say it’s too easy to change the state’s Constitution, which should be a relatively fixed document of governing principles. Any changes should come only with broad popular support. The earlier deadlines would end late lawsuits that disqualify measures at the last minute.
Opponents say Issue 3 would make it harder for average citizens to propose their own amendments and laws, while well-funded special interest groups could meet the higher thresholds. Anyway, most amendments are proposed by legislators. This amendment doesn’t make it much harder for them to do that.
I hope this has been fair and balanced. Now, here’s the bone to pick.
Unprepared voters will understand Issue 1 well enough by reading their ballot. It says they’ll be voting on continuing the tax for roads, though it doesn’t use the word “permanent.”
However, the ballot names and titles for Issues 2 and 3 say only that they would amend term limits and the ballot initiative process. They don’t say how.
If lawmakers are going to ask citizens to amend the Constitution, they should not be so vague. By itself, it’s not enough of a reason to vote no on Issues 2 and 3, but it is a strike against them.
Thankfully, you don’t need an explanation on the ballot because you’re an informed citizen who reads this newspaper. Now go vote, if you haven’t already.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.