For These Issues, Thank Your Lawmakers

For These Issues, Thank Your Lawmakers
Voters will see legislatively referred proposals on Nov. 8, and one of them would affect all future amendment votes, raising the approval threshold to 60% from a simple majority. (Beth Hall)

By law, the Arkansas General Assembly can refer three up to three proposed constitutional amendments in each general election for voters to either enact or reject by a majority vote.

Three will confront voters Nov. 8, and one of the legislatively referred constitutional amendments would affect all future amendment votes, raising the approval threshold to 60% from a simple majority.

The other two lawmaker-referred issues would give the Legislature new authority to call itself into special sessions, and establish a constitutional right of religious freedom for Arkansans even when the government disapproves of the way they do business or how they may resist restrictions like COVID lockdowns.

Here are the issues, their effects and brief summaries of the arguments for and against them.

Arkansas Issue 1: Legislative Authority to Call a Special Session (text)

WHAT IT WOULD DO: The proposal would amend the Arkansas Constitution to let lawmakers call a special legislative session if the Senate president pro tempore and House speaker issue a joint proclamation, or if the assembly itself issues a joint proclamation signed by two-thirds of the members of the Arkansas House and Senate.

BASIC DEBATE POINTS: Arkansas is one of just 14 states where only the governor can call lawmakers into session. Whether that’s a good thing or not is a matter of perspective.

State Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, said one goal was “to ensure that the legislative branch had the ability to call itself into a special session if necessary.” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the power to call the Legislature is a rare executive privilege in a state where, he says, “under our constitution the governor has a lot of respect but structurally the legislature has a lot of the power, particularly with the purse strings.

Arkansas Issue 2: The Supermajority Vote Requirement for Constitutional Amendments and Ballot Initiatives Measure (text)

WHAT IT WOULD DO: The proposed amendment asks voters to say yes to giving themselves less power in future amendment votes. It would require a 60% supermajority rather than 50% plus one vote on future ballots proposals to change the state Constitution, whether referred by the Legislature or the people. The amendment would also require the supermajority on enacting citizen-initiated state statutes.

BASIC DEBATE POINTS: Opponents say voters have no incentive to give up their power in ballot issues, and they point out that recent votes establishing higher minimum wages, medicinal marijuana and casino gambling all would have fallen short of 60% approval. Supporters say they’re fighting an influx of out-of-state money influencing voters’ choices, and that the 50% threshold isn’t high enough to thwart it. Thirty-eight states require a simple majority for constitutional amendment votes.

Arkansas Issue 3: Government Burden of Free Exercise of Religion Amendment (text)

WHAT IT WOULD DO: The constitution would be changed to give Arkansans a right to exercise their religion without government interference, and in cases where the government felt compelled to create a burden — in a global pandemic, for instance, or regulating bias in public accommodation — it would have to prove it’s employing the least burdensome means to further a compelling government interest. Essentially, Arkansas would be able to use the amendment in claims or defenses against the government in judicial and administrative proceedings.

BASIC DEBATE POINTS: Sponsor Jason Rapert says Arkansans shouldn’t be subject to rules infringing on their worship, including pandemic dictates that forbade large church gatherings. And traditionally, religious themed ballot issues have proved popular. But opponents like the ACLU of Arkansas say that while religious freedom is a fundamental right it is “not an excuse to target, harm or discriminate against people.” Executive Director Holly Dickson, said the amendment could be used as a shield by those who would discriminate on the basis of race, sexual orientation or other unlawful factors.

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