Friday, October 24, 2014
EDITORIAL >> Helpful hints for ballot box
Changing a constitution, even the state Constitution, is a serious labor for voters since it either authorizes government or the citizens to do something or else forbids them to do it forever, at least until the constitution can be changed again. Altering a constitution is supposed to be a rare event since it tampers with individual rights or with the structure and powers of government.
That presumes that the amendments themselves are grave and not frivolous and that they are not political ax-grinding. So we take up the three amendments referred to the ballot by the Arkansas legislature last year and that appear on your general-election ballot. Judge for yourself whether any of them achieve the gravity that altering the state’s basic law requires. We would vote, somewhat reluctantly, for only one of them, but you will not be badly amiss if you vote against it, too.
We daresay 1 percent of Arkansas voters know much about even one of the three, which have gotten no publicity in the election cycle and received very little when the General Assembly adopted them in the heated closing days of the 2013 session. Let’s take them up in order.
ISSUE NO. 1 LEGISLATIVE REVIEW
This is easily the worst proposal on the ballot. It upsets the separation and balance of powers that are the bedrock of government in the United States. The amendment requires every administrative rule for implementing a law to be reviewed and approved by an interim committee of the legislature. Rulemaking is an executive function, carried out by agencies that will be implementing the laws.
If a new law, for instance, requires health insurers to cover some illness, the Insurance Department must prepare rules saying exactly how the law will be carried out in every imaginable circumstance. It will hold a public hearing on the rules before they are adopted. The amendment would give an absolute veto power to the small legislative committee, which could override the actions of a majority of the legislature and the governor and block the law from taking effect until the rules are changed to meet the demands of the band of legislators and the interests that opposed the law.
The jockeying to get on the committees would be unprecedented since it would give the members enormous power. Every group with an interest in legislation would be supplicants of the legislators. The invitation to graft and self-dealing would be formidable. You don’t want to subject even your own favorite legislator to the temptations. Vote no.
ISSUE NO. 2 INITIATIVE AND REFERENDUM
This amendment would stiffen the requirements for getting signatures to put a citizen act or amendment on the ballot—like the minimum wage law that is on this year’s ballot. Getting enough valid signatures to get a proposal on the ballot (not counting those referred by the legislature) is terribly difficult because tens of thousands of signatures will be struck because the signer is not a registered voter, signs the petition wrong or makes an illegible or otherwise invalid signature. Then there is a short period for getting enough good signatures to make up for the shortcoming.
If No. 2 is ratified, it will be still harder to get initiated laws on the ballot. The petitions would be dead if the valid names the first time did not reach at least 75 percent of the number required to get on the ballot. There could be no second effort to recoup the signatures.
The casinos at Oaklawn and Southland want the tougher requirements to make it hard for promoters of competing casinos to get a proposal on the ballot to legalize their gambling. But the amendment will make it harder for anyone who does not have the money to hire professional signature gatherers to get their ideas for reform before the voters.
If you believe in this form of citizen democracy—most states do not have initiative and referendum laws at all—then you don’t want to turn the process over to the big moneyed interests. Vote no.
ISSUE NO. 3 ETHICS AND TERM LIMITS
This is a massive amendment, far too long for voters to read it in the poll booth. Everyone should conclude that most of the amendment is worthy. It imposes a fairly strict code of ethics on legislators and people in the executive branch. They cannot accept favors from lobbyists. That is a rule that has long been needed but the legislature, backed by lobbyists, has never been willing to impose such strictures on themselves or the fourth branch of government, lobbyists.
But the legislature extracted a price for the sacrifice. The amendment takes the power to fix the salaries of legislators and state elected officials away from the legislature and gives it to an independent citizens commission, which can raise the salaries without appearing to be self-serving and without risking reprisals from voters. Legislators and constitutional officers are, indeed, underpaid and rather than risk the ire of voters by raising their own pay they now find darker ways to get the money through unaudited expenses and per diem and by setting up a limited liability corporation and paying family members as legislative aides year round.
We would prefer even tighter restraints than the amendment imposes, but this is a long-needed improvement.
The zinger for many people—it probably will defeat it—is a weakening of the term-limits law. Now, a person can serve six years in the House of Representatives and then eight in the Senate before his or her legislative career is ended. The amendment would give every legislator 16 years, whether he or she served it in the House, the Senate or both. The people who put the term-limits law into place 20 years ago are fighting the amendment and that, no doubt, will bring it down.
We find ourselves lukewarmly for it.
Posted by THE LEADER at 9:12 PM