by Max Brantley
The Oaklawn and Southland casinos, gas lobby and other business interests are in a House committee this morning with an 11th-hour amendment to SB 821 to strangle the ballot referendum process. This is on top of a constitutional amendment aimed at the same thing.
The amendment heaps more requirements and expenses on sponsors of ballot initiatives. It does remove the provision prohibiting payment to canvassers based on number of signatures gathered.
Duopoly casinos, rapacious gas and pipeline companies and the usual corporate interests DO NOT like that grassroot groups might propose laws that affect their business. They want to chill it.
Funny irony: The defeat of the so-called tort reform amendment reportedly has the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce talking about an initiative petition on the ballot to kill the ability to file damage lawsuits. Of course, the chamber has the money necessary to meet the new requirements of this referendum-chilling law, no matter how onerous.
The fix looks to be in. A motion for a do-pass was made before any arguments or questions were entertained.
Rep. John Walker objected. "Why is it that we want to burden the process of petitioning," he asked. Easy answer. To discourage them.
Defenders of the amendment cited problems in the last election on faulty signatures. Of course, those measures didn't make the ballot. The system in place worked.
Walker persisted, saying the bill infringed on the petition process guaranteed by the First Amendment. If only a gun was involved, he might have gotten more sympathy.
Walker also linked the bill's requirement for more reporting on identities of people gathering signatures with past efforts by government to identify members of unpopular organizations such as the NAACP. Sponsors said they were only aiming at paid canvassers. The intent is not to "out some secret group," said sponsoring Rep. John Vines from Oaklawn's hometown.
Rep. Nate Bell suggested that paying petition canvassers came close to "buying votes." Really. We'll see if he feels that way when it's the chamber buying signatures. Or when it was the Waltons buying signatures for legal booze sales in Benton County.
A backer of the marijuana initiative said the existing law works, particularly if prosecutors would act on cases of fraud. She said they'd begged prosecutors to act against someone responsible for bogus signatures on their campaign, but nothing was done.
An opponent, Mark Johnson, also noted the strong constitutional language in Amendment 7 against legislation hampering the petition right. In other words, this proposal is another lawsuit waiting to happen.
OUTCOME: The bill drew 9 votes, two short of the 11 needed for endorsement. Lots of absences.