by Max Brantley
Regnat Populus has issued a rallying cry for good government advocates to fight Sen. Keith Ingram's bill to make it far more difficult to qualify popular initiatives for the ballot.
Paul Spencer, chair of the good government group, sees the fine hand of lawyers for the state's casino monopolies — at Oaklawn and Southland — in the measure. Hard to quarrel. It'd be cheaper for them to never have to face casino proposals than to have to spend on lawyers to fight them when they surface, as happened last year.
Making the initiative process difficult can cut both ways, however. Sometimes, the fat cats have initiated acts and constitutional amendments they'd like to float, though they can usually count on a compliant legislature to put them on the ballot without messy petition drives. Grassroots efforts, such as Regnat Populus' hoped-for ethics reform and the medical marijuana movement, would be severaly hampered by Ingram's legislation.
Spencer comments on the bill, which could come up tomorrow:
In a whistle-stop tour in 1910, renowned populist reformer and orator William Jennings Bryan campaigned with Arkansas Governor George Donaghey to enact the Initiative and Referenda Process in the state of Arkansas."I know of nothing that will do more than Initiative and Referenda to restore government to the hands of the people and keep it within their control,"
William Jennings Bryan
The voters of Arkansas adopted this tool in 1910 and for almost 70 years, Arkansas remained the only southern state with a statewide Initiative and Referenda process.
Now a serious threat to the Arkansas voters’ ability to exercise our first Amendment right to petition through this Initiative and Referenda process looms on the horizon. For the last several weeks we have been following the progress of a very restrictive bill known as SB 821.
SB 821 was introduced by Senator Keith Ingram (D-West Memphis-coincidentally, the home of Southland Racetrack). This legislation drafted by the attorneys for Oaklawn Park appears to be an effort hatched by Oaklawn and Southland gaming establishments to attempt to protect their gaming monopolies by making legislation originating from the people of Arkansas next to impossible. Their plan is to attack the Initiative and Referenda process-a process which Arkansans have enjoyed for well over 100 years and one that is ensconced in the Arkansas Constitution- by making the logistics of the process so onerous that it would be next to impossible to comply. This is the same tactic that was used successfully to keep Black Southerners from voting for approximately 100 years after the end of the Civil War in the Jim Crow South. Blacks technically had to right to vote, but restrictions placed upon the ability to exercise that right essentially nullified it.
Their ostensible argument is that the initiative process has become so corrupt, including the assumption that Arkansas is in an IMMEDIATE STATE OF EMERGENCY, that draconian measures in SB 821 are needed to ensure “preservation of the public peace, health and safety” of the state. See below (parenthetical and highlighted comments are mine).EMERGENCY CLAUSE. It is found and determined by the General Assembly of the State of Arkansas that existing procedures for initiating and referring state laws and ordinances pursuant to Amendment 7 to the Arkansas Constitution and state statutes are inadequate to prevent fraudulent practices by sponsors and canvassers in obtaining ballot access; that this act addresses these inadequacies; and that this act is immediately necessary to prevent fraudulent practices because petition campaigns are either being conducted at the present time (such as Regnat Populous’ Campaign Finance and Lobbying Act of 2014) or may be conducted immediately upon the adjournment of the General Assembly with respect to either initiated or referred measures. Therefore, an emergency is declared to exist, and this act being immediately necessary for the preservation of the public peace, health, and safety shall become effective on: (basically immediately, given several possible scenarios).
Indeed, there were instances of fraud and duplication in the collection of petition signatures in 2012. David Couch compiled known fraudulent petitions and a listing of individuals that signed the petitions numerous times and in accordance with existing law took these petitions to the Pulaski County Prosecuting Attorney. To our knowledge no action was taken from this point forward. Before making new laws, perhaps it should be best to enforce the ones currently on the books. Also it should be noted that none of these measures were certified for the ballot so the safeguards currently in place worked!
Quite simply, existing law should be enforced, not supplemented with what we believe will be shown to ultimately be an unconstitutional law.
This legislation could be on the agenda tomorrow (Tuesday, March 19, 2013). Please contact your State Representatives to vote NO to SB 821! More information about this bill can be found on the Regnat Populus facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/rparkansas.
The Initiative and Referenda processes distinguished Arkansas from other Southern states during most of the 20th century in our citizens’ belief that the People Rule. We must remain ever vigilant at the outset of the 21st century that this intrinsic right is not ceded to special interests. The tools we have at our disposal are the ones that were used by William Jennings Bryan over a century ago: the public exchange of ideas and discourse in pursuit an ideal-the ability of American citizens to direct their representatives to uphold government that is OF the people, BY the people and FOR the people.
Co-Chair, Regnat Populous Ballot Question Committee