LITTLE ROCK – In each regular session the legislature may refer up to three proposed constitutional amendments to voters.
This year 27 proposals were filed in the House of Representatives and 15 were filed in the Senate. The State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committees of each chamber will begin the task of narrowing the list to three.
Among the resolutions filed this year are proposals to lengthen the terms of county officials from two to four years, to limit the amounts of damages in civil lawsuits, to require voters to present a photo ID to get a ballot and to allow Arkansas governors to maintain their authority when they leave the state.
Proposed constitutional amendments are filed as Senate or House Joint Resolutions. The three chosen by the legislature will be on the statewide general election ballot in November 2016. If voters approve them, they become amendments to the Arkansas constitution.
One of the most contentious issues will be whether to refer a tort reform amendment, and if so, how encompassing would it be. Tort reform is the popular term for limits to damages that can be awarded in civil lawsuits.
In 2003 the legislature enacted a tort reform law, Act 649, but over time its main provisions have been stricken by the courts as unconstitutional. It limited punitive damages to $1 million, but that limit was stricken by the state Supreme Court in 2011, in an appeal of an award to rice farmers filed in Lonoke Circuit Court. After that ruling, supporters of tort reform changed strategies.
Rather than working for new statutes that limit awards in civil suits, they are trying to win voter approval of a constitutional amendment to limit the amount of punitive damages.
The logic is that a limit on awards written into the constitution would withstand any legal challenges claiming it is unconstitutional.
Five separate joint resolutions have been filed in the Senate affecting procedures in civil lawsuits and the judicial department. Another five have been filed in the House.
Other resolutions would abolish the office of lieutenant governor and do away with fiscal sessions of the legislature. A House resolution would allow voters to determine whether Supreme Court justices should be elected or appointed by a 15-member panel of legal experts. Currently, they are elected.
Also last week the Senate approved SB 81 to combine the offenses of boating while intoxicated and driving while intoxicated. It would mean that a driver with a prior offense from boating while legally drunk on his record would be charged with a second offense if he were arrested for drunken driving.
The Senate also approved SB 7, to transfer the operation of the state lottery from a Commission of nine citizens to the Department of Finance and Administration. Currently, the commissioners are appointed by the governor, the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate.
Also, the Senate passed legislation to prohibit physicians from administering abortion pills via telemedicine. The measure, SB 53, would specifically limit physicians from using telemedicine to prescribe the abortion drug known as RU-486. The Senate passed it by a vote of 29-to-4.