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Ballot backers at odds over canvassers

Signature-gatherers told they can’t carry both ‘pot’, term-limit petitions by Brian Fanney | June 14, 2016 at 5:33 a.m.

Paid petition circulators will not be collecting signatures for both the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment and a separate proposed constitutional amendment designed to shorten term limits for state lawmakers, according to the parties involved.

Petitioners will also not be collecting signatures for the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment and the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act at the same time.

David Couch, a Little Rock lawyer who is backing the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment, said he has "instructed [National Ballot Access] to not allow canvassers carrying the medical marijuana amendment to carry the term-limits petition."

"Canvassers have a choice -- they can choose to carry term limits or the medical marijuana petition," he said.

But Bob Porto of Restore Term Limits said Couch is telling independent contractors how to do their jobs.

"I'm just making an observation," he said. "When people hire petitioners to collect signatures and pay them per signature, they are ... independent contractors. As an independent contractor, you pretty much have them as a nonemployee, so you can't tell them what to do or where to be or what tool to pick up or what job to take."

Arkansas statute 11-10-210 -- the state's definition of "employee" -- is about 4,300 words long. It states, in part, that an individual is an employee unless the individual "has been and will continue to be free from control and direction in connection with the performance of the service, both under his or her contract for the performance of service and in fact."

Porto said he wasn't accusing Couch of an illegal activity. He said he was just raising the question.

"Sounds like a bunch of sour grapes to me," Couch said in response.

National Ballot Access is a for-profit company that collects signatures for ballot initiatives, veto referendums and recall petition drives.

"In our industry, people are independent contractors and they carry all kind of petitions, but we also have the right not to contract with people, and in this case, I was told that a client did not want, really, all three of those issues carried together," said Edee Baggett, co-owner of the company.

It happens every once in a while in the signature-gathering industry, she said.

"We didn't say you can't carry term limits. We said if you would like to carry this petition, you can't carry both," she said.

Couch said carrying both the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment and the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act would be confusing.

Melissa Fults, campaign manager for Arkansans for Compassionate Care, said it won't affect her proposal, the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act.

"We're probably the only group that has depended on volunteers," she said. "When you talk about grass-roots, we're about as grass-roots as you can get."

She said the group has around 300 or 400 active volunteers and more than 100,000 signatures. The act will require 67,887 valid signatures to get on the ballot.

"There's a huge difference between paying somebody to come in and get signatures for something they really don't care about and having volunteers -- many of patients -- doing it because it's the right thing to do and they're completely and totally dedicated to it," she said.

Couch worked with Fults on a proposed 2012 medical marijuana measure that fell just short of approval by voters. After the election, the two split over a "grow-your-own" provision, and they pursued separate proposals for this election year.

Under Fults' proposal, a patient with a "Hardship Cultivation Certificate" would be allowed to grow up to 10 cannabis plants in an enclosed, locked facility. A dedicated caregiver would be allowed to cultivate the plants.

The hardship certificates would be provided by the Arkansas Department of Health "based on documentation of the Qualifying Patient's lack of access to a Nonprofit Cannabis Care Center," according to the proposal. Nonprofit centers would serve as dispensaries.

Couch said the state is not ready for the grow-your-own provision. He said his proposal focuses on security.

His proposed amendment does not specify how dispensaries can be run, but it would limit the number to 40 in the state. The Alcoholic Beverage Control Division of the Department of Finance and Administration would inspect the dispensaries.

Six initiated proposals -- including the two medical marijuana proposals and a third measure to allow all cannabis use -- met Wednesday's deadline set by state law for being published in a statewide newspaper. The next deadline is July 8, when backers have to submit to the state enough valid signatures to get their proposals on the ballot.

Porto is backing an amendment to limit state representatives to six years in office, senators to eight years in office and a maximum of 10 years in both chambers. It also would prohibit the Legislature from putting future term-limit measures on the ballot.

"They conveniently used the campaign of silence and basically frauded the citizens by lengthening term limits through Issue 3 on the last election," Porto said. "We hope to restore term limits back on our legislators."

Issue 3, which voters approved in 2014, allows lawmakers to serve up to 16 years in the House, Senate or combination of terms in both. Before the measure, lawmakers had been limited to six years in the House and eight years in the Senate, for a maximum of 14 years between the two chambers. Some senators had been able to serve 10 years if they drew a two-year term after winning in the election after once-per-decade redistricting.

Issue 3 also prohibits elected officials from accepting certain gifts from lobbyists, prohibits direct campaign contributions from corporations and unions and extends the cooling-off period for lawmakers before they can register as lobbyists.

Couch said he worked with Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, and Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, on Issue 3.

"We worked hard on Issue 3," he said. "The people voted and they voted to modify term limits. They did that just this last election cycle."

Relying mostly on volunteers, Porto said he expected to turn in at least the required 84,859 valid signatures to the secretary of state's office by the July 8 deadline. He estimated that he was three-quarters of the way there.

"We hope to restore term limits back on our legislators," he said. "We feel like we should be able to reach our goal."

Information for this article was contributed by Michael R. Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Metro on 06/14/2016

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