The Arkansas Supreme Court today denied a request for a rehearing on its decision to allow signatures to be counted for a proposed ballot initiative on eye surgery regulations. The proposed referendum would repeal a recent law that gives optometrists the ability to do certain surgical procedures.

In response, an optometrist-backed group announced that it is filing a new lawsuit, challenging the signatures on different grounds and asking the court to affirm that the law remains in place.

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After heavy spending on lobbyists from both sides, the legislature last March approved what became Act 579, over the objections of ophthalmologists. Proponents argued that opening more procedures to optometrists will improve access to needed services; opponents argued that additional medical training is required to perform these procedures, including injections around the eye and certain laser eye surgeries.

The ophthalmologist-backed Safe Surgery Arkansas committee is now hoping to repeal the law via a ballot initiative. The optometrist-backed Arkansans for Healthy Eyes is attempting to block that effort in court.

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Secretary of State John Thurston disqualified Safe Surgery’s petitions because of a new law regarding requirements for paid canvassers, but the state Supreme Court ruled last month in a 4-3 decision that all of the group’s petitions should be counted, based upon the old rules. Arkansans for Healthy Eyes asked the court for a re-hearing on the issue, but the court, again in a 4-3 decision, today rejected that request.

According to Safe Surgery Arkansas, an FOI request to the Secretary of State’s office reveals that it has collected the necessary number of valid signatures to refer the question to voters this November. Thurston has yet to officially certify the petition; he has previously stated that his office was waiting on the Supreme Court case to be fully resolved before issuing a determination on certifying the petition.

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Now that its request for a re-hearing in that case has failed, Arkansans for Healthy Eyes has filed a lawsuit today in the Pulaski County Circuit Court arguing that even under the old rules, the referendum process to put Act 579 on the ballot was improper and failed to follow the law.

“We are disappointed by today’s ruling from the Court, and unfortunately, there is now even more uncertainty surrounding the referendum process in this case,” said Vicki Farmer, the group’s chair, in a press release today. “Though the Court has ruled that the law governing the petition and referendum process prior to the passage of Act 376 applied to the signature-gathering process here, opponents didn’t follow that law, either. For example, the ballot title was never approved by the Attorney General, as was required by the old law.”

The group’s lawsuit asks the Pulaski County Circuit Court to prohibit the Secretary of State from taking any action in connection with the ophthalmologists’ petition to repeal Act 579 and to declare that the law remains in place.

“We believe Act 579 is and should remain in effect, and we are asking the Court to make that clear,” Farmer said in the press release. “For the tens of thousands of patients across Arkansas counting on better access to quality eye care, it’s important that this law stay in place.”

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