by Max Brantley
The House today approved SB 821 to place additional burdens on petition campaigns for ballot initiatives. The vote was 78-9.
The bill was pushed by the two casinos in Arkansas and big business generally to discourage grassroots efforts to put bills and amendments on the ballot. Rep. Jim Nickels pointed out several problems in the 19-page bill. Advocates of the bill noted sloppy petition gathering in 2012. They didn't mention that none of those campaigns marked by flawed canvassing made the ballot. The existing safeguards worked, in other words.
Rep. Jeremy Gillam said the bill was aimed at people trying to "buy" access. But none did. Nickels noted that the casino operators have plenty of money and they can spend a sufficient amount to meet any new rules, including registration of canvassers and a change of the current law that allows canvassers to complete filling in voter information, address and such, after they've given a signature.
Rep. Mark Lowery, speaking from the right end of the spectrum (the Family Council opposes the bill), said the language in the bill "impugns the integrity" of all canvassers, paid and unpaid, who try to circulate petitions for the ballot.
This is another bill with constitutional problems. The Arkansas Constitution provides great protection for the petition process, which would be significantly hampered by this legislation. Opponents of the bill have said a lawsuit is a possibility.