For the third time in the past month, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has balked at signing off on proposed ballot language for an initiated measure that would increase the state's minimum wage from the current $8.50 an hour.
In a decision released Tuesday, the Republican attorney general declined to certify the popular name and ballot title for the proposed initiated act submitted by attorney David Couch of Little Rock that would gradually raise the minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2022.
The popular name briefly describes the proposal, and a ballot title is a lengthier summary. Both appear on ballots.
The attorney general's certification of the popular name and ballot title is required to allow the sponsor to begin collecting 67,887 valid signatures of registered voters by July 6 to qualify the proposed measure for the Nov. 6 general election ballot. Also, sponsors of proposals are required to publish their proposals by June 6.
In 2014, Arkansas' voters approved a proposed initiated act drafted by Couch that gradually increased the minimum wage from $6.25 per hour initially to $8.50 per hour last year. This year, he has submitted three variations of a minimum-wage proposal, including the one rejected this week.
Couch's latest proposal would increase the minimum wage to $9.25 per hour on Jan. 1, to $10 per hour on Jan. 1, 2020, to $11 per hour on Jan. 1, 2021, and then to $12 per hour on Jan. 1, 2022.
"It is clear that General Rutledge does not want the citizens of Arkansas to be able to vote on whether or not the minimum wage should be raised," Couch said Tuesday in a written statement.
"The citizens of this state have a constitutional right to proposed initiated measures. General Rutledge is prohibiting the people from exercising their constitutional right."
Rutledge spokesman Nicole Ryan countered that "as Attorney General Rutledge has previously stated, the Arkansas Supreme Court raised the bar in decisions handed down in 2016 for what constitutes a ballot title being sufficiently clear to appear on the ballot, making any previously approved language irrelevant unless held to this new standard.
"These Supreme Court decisions require that it be clear to Arkansans what a 'for' or 'against' vote means," Ryan said in a written statement.
Ryan said she was referring to the state Supreme Court's 2016 rulings in Lange v. Martin and Wilson v. Martin.
In the former case, the state's high court rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would authorize three casinos in Boone, Miller and Washington counties on the grounds that the proposal's ballot title was insufficient because it failed to inform voters that federal law prohibited Arkansas and other states from authorizing sports gambling at that time.
In the latter case, the Supreme Court, in striking down the proposal, said the authors of a tort-overhaul amendment failed to adequately define critical parts of the measure. The court said the term "non-economic damages" was not properly defined for voters.
Regarding Couch's latest proposal on the minimum wage, Rutledge said in a letter dated Monday that a fundamental flaw in his proposal turns on the requirement that the ballot title sufficiently inform the voters about the changes in current law that they are being asked to approve.
"You attempt to inform voters what existing law provides by restating verbatim the statutory definitions of both 'employer' and 'employee' into the ballot title," she wrote in her nine-page letter to Couch.
"Merely regurgitating these technical terms' definitions and turning them into sentences for inclusion in a ballot title does not, in my opinion, serve to adequately summarize the current law you propose to change," Rutledge said. "In fact, it more likely compounds the problem regarding what voters are expected to read and comprehend during their time in the voting booth by introducing new technical terms contained within these definitions."
Couch's 967-word ballot title is "quite long," and "prudence would suggest that you consider whether a ballot title of a length like the one you have currently proposed would meet the [state Supreme] Court's standards for intelligent consideration by voters in the allotted time," she said in her letter to Couch.
Rutledge said the problems that she cited are sufficiently serious to require her to reject Couch's proposed language and render her unable to substitute language.
"My office, in the certification of ballot titles and popular names, does not address the merits, philosophy, or ideology of proposed measures," she said. "My statutory mandate is embodied only in Ark. Code Ann. 7-9-107, and my duty is to the electorate."
Earlier this month, a group of attorneys filed a lawsuit in Pulaski County Circuit Court that alleges that Rutledge has undercut voters' rights to amend the state constitution by summarily rejecting proposals that reach her desk for review. A hearing in that case is set for Friday.
Metro on 05/16/2018
Print Headline: Base-wage ballot title fails again