Tuesday, August 19, 2014

TOP STORY >> Liquor law closer to ballot

Leader staff writer

Advocates of expanding alcohol sales statewide turned in 41,492 signatures to the Secretary of State on Friday, ahead of the Monday deadline.

Only 17,133 of those must be verified for a proposed constitutional amendment making every county in Arkansas wet, including Lonoke and White counties, to land on the Nov. 4 ballot. Wet means allowing alcohol sales.

Little Rock attorney David Couch, who is spearheading the effort, believes that about 31,000 of the signatures will be verified based on the group’s internal checks.

He hopes the Secretary of State’s Office, which has 30 days to conduct its verification process, will have good news for the campaign within two weeks.

But the battle might not end there. Opponents, mostly liquor-store owners, may pursue a lawsuit to get the measure off the ballot, Couch said.

They claim July 4 should have been the first deadline for petitioners as the state’s Constitution dictates the deadline must be four months before an election, the lawyer explained.

But Couch pointed out that the Secretary of State’s Office was closed for the holiday, which was on a Friday, and extended the deadline to the following business day. He said that office has, since 1925, followed the policy of extending deadlines to the next business day when they fall on holidays.

Couch added, “They’re grasping at straws.” He said he doesn’t believe the Arkansas Supreme Court will agree with the opponents and commented on the irony of them trying to take away the people’s right to vote with a claim involving “the day we celebrate democracy.”

Couch continued, “ I just don’t see it happening. They don’t want people to vote on this is the thing. So they’re going to take every shot that they get.”

He also said the opponents have filed another lawsuit, with different claims, against a Saline County group that got a local-option vote on the ballot.

The lawyer told The Leader that any legal proceedings against the statewide campaign would be expedited and resolved before the November vote, as they were when he served as counsel to the campaign for a medicinal marijuana ballot measure in a similar lawsuit.

Secretary of State Mark Martin last month verified 61,000 of the 84,969 signatures turned in by the July 7 deadline. Supporters were given another 30 days to come up with the rest of the 78,133 verified signatures needed.

Couch said he believes, with the 61,000 and the new signatures that were turned in last week, campaigners exceeded the minimum by obtaining a total of 91,000 verified signatures.

The lawyer said previously that canvassers collected about 2,000 signatures in the dry Lonoke County and about 1,400 in the dry White County.

Couch said Tuesday that supporters plan to hold campaigning events in the local area and are already raising funds to buy advertising from a variety of media outlets.

If passed, the proposed amendment could mean 15 liquor stores in White County and 13 in Lonoke County, based on the one liquor store per 5,000 people allowed by the state Alcohol Beverage Control Division.

Pulaski County is maxed out on permits, so the amendment would not mean more liquor stores there. But the liquor stores on the outskirts of cities could move closer to more heavily trafficked locales.

Couch previously shared with The Leader the results of a poll that asked more than 1,000 voters statewide whether they supported the amendment.

The results were that 52 percent supported it, 40 percent were opposed and 8 percent were undecided.

Jacksonville and Sherwood won’t need their wet-dry petition signatures if the constitutional amendment lands on the ballot and voters pass it.

The chambers of commerce for both cities are leading the effort to put to a vote whether defunct townships that contain half of Sherwood and 90 percent of Jacksonville should go wet or stay dry.

Their Jacksonville Wet/Dry Campaign and Keep Dollars in Sherwood campaign have been working to collect more than 4,000 signatures each — 38 percent of registered voters in each defunct township — to get local-option elections.

Jacksonville was short 1,966 of the 4,400 it needs, as of Aug. 4, according to chamber director Amy Mattison. She didn’t immediately return a call from The Leader on Tuesday.

Jacksonville and Sherwood have hired Robert Coon of Impact Management Group in Little Rock to help them collect local-option signatures.

Coon did not immediately return a call from The Leader on Tuesday.

But he said previously that Sherwood, which had a little more than 1,000 of the 4,200 it needs in early July, “is kind of in a holding pattern now.”

He explained that, if the statewide measure gets on the ballot and voters pass it, “it’s duplicate. They certainly don’t want to waste any resources or business contributions…If you’ve got another way to solve your problem, you might want to see if it is fixed for you.”

But, Coon noted previously, Jacksonville supporters have continued collecting signatures because that city is much closer to its goal.

“They have definitely crested the hill and are on their way down the other side,” he said.

Both of the local campaigns have been collecting signatures since last summer.

Going wet could add $10 million to Sherwood’s economy and $600,000 to Jacksonville’s economy, according to a study conducted by UALR.