Voter ID, Tort Reform Among Amendments Filed in Arkansas

By | February 17, 2015

Reinstating Arkansas’ voter ID law, imposing new restrictions on lawsuit damages and eliminating the lieutenant governor’s office are among the dozens of ideas lawmakers would like to put on the ballot in 2016.

With about 40 proposed constitutional amendments filed by last week’s deadline, the Arkansas Legislature faces a long list to whittle down to the three measures lawmakers can put before voters next year.

Lawmakers say they expect much of the debate to focus on a renewed fight over so-called tort reform, with the chairman of the Senate panel considering the ballot measures that propose changes regarding civil claims and court procedures.

Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, who chairs the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee, has said his proposal will be similar to a measure that deadlocked before a Senate panel two years that would have allowed lawmakers to write court rules for civil cases.

Several other proposals on tort reform have been filed as “shells,” meaning they don’t include details.

The 2013 proposal had the backing of several business groups, including the state Chamber of Commerce, which argued the change was needed to address recent court rulings that overturned parts of tort reform legislation passed in 2003. It faced heavy opposition from trial lawyers, who warned that transferring that power to lawmakers would politicize the state’s courts.

“I think Arkansans overwhelmingly sent us up here to make some changes, and I feel strongly that tort (reform) was one of those,” said Williams, R-Cabot.

Rep. Nate Bell, who chairs the House panel, has filed a proposal that would cap funding on public education so it doesn’t exceed a percentage of state spending. The proposal doesn’t yet specify a percentage, but Bell said he didn’t expect it to be near what the state currently spends.

“At some point, I think we all understand we can’t put 99 percent of our money into education,” said Bell, R-Mena. “The track we’re on, we would eventually wind up at that point.”

The tort reform efforts could face an uphill climb, with the Senate panel evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Republicans hold a majority on the House panel. The Senate split could also be a challenge for an effort by Republicans to reinstate Arkansas’ voter ID law, which the state Supreme Court struck down in October as unconstitutional.

The measures being considered also include a focus on the lieutenant governor’s office, with Williams proposing an amendment that would allow the governor to retain his powers when he’s out of state. Another proposal by Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley, would abolish the lieutenant governor’s office. Mayberry’s husband, former state Rep. Andy Mayberry, unsuccessfully ran for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor on a vow to push for the post’s elimination.

Other measures include:

  • A proposal by Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, to end the election of state Supreme Court justices. Shepherd’s proposal would create a 15-member commission to select nominees for the governor to choose to fill vacancies on the court. Justices could seek retention on the ballot when an eight-year term ends.
  • Proposals by Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, and Rep. Dan Douglas, D-Bentonville, to repeal the amendments voters approved in 2008 requiring the Legislature to meet annually. Ingram’s proposal would revert back to biennial sessions, with the Legislature budgeting on a two-year cycle.
  • A proposal by Rep. David Branscum, R-Marshall, to define “infamous crimes” in the Constitution that would bar someone from serving in the Legislature or holding state office. The state constitution currently bars anyone who’s been convicted of “embezzlement of public money, bribery, forgery or other infamous crime.”

Topics Legislation Arkansas

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