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The conservative, faith-based Family Council on Monday laid out for reporters its plan to oppose a proposed constitutional amendment sought by business and medical interests to limit punitive damages and attorneys' fees in lawsuits.

The Family Council's view of the so-called tort reform amendment is that it sets a dollar value on life.

The campaigns over the amendment, which will be Issue 1 on the Nov. 6 ballot, are taking in hundreds of thousands of dollars both from pro-business groups, which support the amendment, and from trial attorneys, who oppose it.

But on Monday, Ken Yang, the political director for the Family Council, presented plans for a comparatively bare-bones effort that will focus on inexpensive mailers, grass-roots campaigning and networking with preachers.

If passed by voters, Issue 1 would amend the Arkansas Constitution to set a cap on punitive and other "non-economic" damages, such as pain and suffering, limit attorneys' fees and give the Legislature ultimate control over rule-making for the courts. The amendment was placed on the ballot by Republican majorities in the state Legislature, which approved the proposal through Senate Joint Resolution 8.

"Issue 1 allows the powerful to hurt what I call the least of these," said Jerry Cox, the head of the Family Council, adding that it would limit the amount of damages the paralyzed, maimed and handicapped could seek in accident claims, as well as set limits in wrongful death cases.

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The Family Council also opposed an effort in 2016 to establish similar caps in medical suits. However, that amendment never reached a public vote because it was stopped by the Arkansas Supreme Court.

The debate over Issue 1 will pit two stalwarts in Arkansas GOP politics against each other: the Family Council and the Chamber of Commerce.

Cox said Monday that the issue hasn't created division within the group's network in the religious community, but of Republicans as a whole, he said, "We're just going to have to agree to disagree."

After the news conference, Randy Zook, president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, issued a statement through a spokesman: "Without lawsuit reform, Arkansas small businesses face a constant threat of frivolous lawsuits. It unfairly hurts our entire state's ability to grow jobs and recruit and retain doctors to care for Arkansans in communities large and small. Farmers, job creators, truckers, doctors and hospitals have joined together to pass lawsuit reform that protects everyday Arkansans from being overcharged with ridiculous contingency fees and while still allowing them to recover 100% of their actual damages in civil cases. We know from examples like Texas, that lawsuit reforms benefit our state and grows jobs. That's why just last week, the Arkansas Economic Developers and Chamber Executives voted to endorse Issue 1 and I look forward to the continued growth of support as our campaign progresses."

According to the most recently available campaign finance reports, groups on both sides of the Issue 1 campaign together had more than $1.8 million available at the end of January -- nine months before the election.

The Family Council Action Committee, a ballot campaign committee that filed with the state Ethics Commission last month to oppose Issue 1, has not yet reported its first fundraising report. Cox said Monday that the group has enough money from previous campaigns to send about 5,000 mailers seeking donations.

As the campaign gears up, Yang, the group's political director, said the group also will recruit its network of faith leaders and reach out through social media and phone calls, as well as rely on media.

"It works whether we have a little bit of money, or if we have more," Yang said.

Cox said the group has yet to receive aid from trial attorneys, who so far have been the biggest spenders against Issue 1. Cox said he was not ruling out any collaboration.

The other proposed constitutional amendment referred by the Legislature is Issue 2, which would outline requirements for voter identification.

Metro on 03/06/2018

Print Headline: Plans set by group to oppose ballot bid

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