Today is the deadline for the Arkansas legislature to file joint resolutions — that is, legislatively referred amendments to the state constitution — and the Capitol is seeing a flurry of last-minute filings from members.
Many of the proposals are “shell bills,” meaning they’re simply placeholders that contain no substance but will later be amended by their sponsors. The legislature typically refers three amendments to appear on the Arkansas ballot in the next general election (in this case, Nov. 2018), but the General Assembly instituted a change in its rules this session that may result in just two amendments being referred instead. The House and the Senate each separately will select one joint resolution to send to the other chamber, and the two chambers may meet jointly to select a third.
Among the legislation to watch (this list is not exhaustive):
*House Joint Resolution 1013, sponsored by Rep. Bob Ballinger (R-Hindsville), would require any court challenge to a petition for an initiated act or constitutional amendment to be made within 60 days of the petition’s filing. HJR 1004 by Rep. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville) would do something similar, but the deadline would be 30 days and the clock would begin when the ballot title is certified. Both are likely in response to the fiasco over Issue 7, the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act, which in October was disqualified by the state Supreme Court and thrown off the ballot days after early voting had begun. Two other constitutional amendments initiated by petition were also tossed off the ballot by the court in 2016; one was a tort reform proposal and the other was an attempt to establish three casinos in specific Arkansas counties.
*HJR 1015 is a response to the casino ballot measure from 2016, which egregiously attempted to carve out a provision in the state constitution that specifically benefited three LLCs named explicitly by its ballot title. This joint resolution, sponsored by Rep. Andy Mayberry (R-Hensley), would prevent a proposed amendment from specifically bestowing “powers, privileges, or authority” to a specific individual or private business identity identified by name.
*HJR 1005, by Rep. Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle), is a duplicate of a measure filed earlier in the Senate by Sen. Blake Johnson, Senate Joint Resolution 3. Entitled the “Public Education Partnership Amendment,” it seems to be aimed at undermining the state Supreme Court’s landmark Lake View decision on school funding. Because the Senate seems likely to choose Sen. Missy Irvin’s tort reform proposal, it seemed as though Sen. Johnson’s amendment was likely a non-starter. That may still be the case, but the fact that the proposal has also found a House sponsor makes it worth watching.
*Speaking of tort reform, though, there’s at least one alternative proposal to Irvin’s measure, by Sens. Bruce Maloch (D-Magnolia) and Bryan King (R-Green Forest), joined by Rep. Jimmy Gazaway (R-Paragould). There’s a House version and a Senate version. It would cap punitive damages at five times the amount of compensatory damages and allow for reimbursement of attorneys fees and litigation costs in some instances. Unlike Irvin’s amendment, it would not cap attorney contingency fees, cap non-economic damages or transfer judicial rule-making authority to the legislature.
*HJR 1003 — This is a shell bill with little clue as to its intent, but it deserves attention since its sponsor is Speaker Jeremy Gillam (R-Judsonia). It would alter the process for placing proposed constitutional amendments and initiated acts on the ballot.
*As we reported earlier, Rep. Andy Davis (R-Little Rock) filed HJR 1020, his proposal to end fiscal sessions of the General Assembly and instead hold annual regular sessions (although their length would be circumscribed). Meanwhile, HJR 1006, proposed by Rep. Kim Hendren (R-Gravette) would simply end fiscal sessions. (His son, Sen. Jim Hendren (R-Gravette), proposed a joint resolution in the Senate late last year to do the same thing.)
*Rep. Jim Dotson (R-Bentonville), who’s sponsored a school voucher bill potentially devastating to public education in Arkansas, filed a series of shell bills in which he proposes various changes to the constitution. Among them: ending the independent stature of the State Highway Commission, allowing greater legislative interference in higher education and doing something unspecified to public education funding. Stay tuned.
*And finally: HJR 1021 by Rep. Jim Sorvillo (R-Little Rock) would establish a new barrier to placing a monument or statue at the state Capitol grounds, requiring a petition containing the signatures of at least 200,000 qualified voters in the state collected within a two-year span.