Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who has drawn sharp criticism in the past few months from some ballot-measure proponents for rejecting all of their proposals, said Thursday she wants the General Assembly to fix the initiative process.
The announcement came the day before Rutledge was scheduled to appear in court for a lawsuit over her office's rejection of proposals.
"I look forward to working with legislators and interested parties on specific proposals" to change the initiative process, the Republican attorney general said in a written statement in response to a reporter's question. She was asked whether she has any particular proposals in mind.
Rutledge said she's calling on the Legislature in the 2019 regular session to fix the initiative process, which allows Arkansans to place proposed laws and constitutional amendments on the general election ballot. The initiative process is outlined in the state constitution and in state statutes.
"Citizens should know very early in the process whether the Arkansas Supreme Court approves the language of their proposal, prior to their spending significant amounts of time and money collecting signatures and educating voters on the issue," she said in a news release issued late Thursday afternoon.
Under existing state law, Rutledge said she is required to review citizens' proposals to ensure they are not misleading. She must approve the popular name and ballot title of a proposal, both of which appear on ballots and are intended to tell voters about a proposal.
Rutledge has rejected the ballot language submitted for several dozen proposed constitutional amendments and initiated acts since October 2016.
That month was the last time her office approved the ballot language for a proposed amendment -- one that would impose more stringent term limits for state lawmakers.
A group of lawyers sued Rutledge earlier this month accusing the first-term attorney general of deliberately thwarting their efforts to get proposed amendments on casino gambling and sovereign immunity before the voters.
She is to explain her office's review process in a hearing at 10 a.m. today before Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen.
In her news release, Rutledge said that "in determining whether a proposal is misleading, I must follow the very strict standard set forth by the Arkansas Supreme Court in the Lange and Wilson cases from 2016.
"These Supreme Court decisions require that it be clear to Arkansans what a 'for' or 'against' vote means," she said.
In the Lange v. Martin ruling, the state's high court rejected a proposed amendment that would authorize casinos in three counties on the grounds that its ballot title was insufficient because it failed to inform voters that federal law prohibited states from authorizing sports gambling at that time.
In the Wilson v. Martin ruling, the Supreme Court, in striking down a proposal, said the authors of a tort-overhaul amendment failed to adequately define critical parts of the measure, including the term "non-economic damages."
Rutledge said, "Only proposals that I am confident meet the Supreme Court's stringent test are approved."
After her office approves ballot language and backers of proposals then gather enough signatures to get the measures on the ballot, opponents can still ask the Supreme Court to strike the proposal from the ballot and the court "takes a completely new look at the language," she said.
"Because such challenges occur very close to the election, proposals rejected by the Arkansas Supreme Court often still appear on the election ballot, adding further confusion for Arkansas voters," Rutledge said.
"Citizens, who want to place an initiative on the ballot, should not be required to get the language approved by both the attorney general and the Arkansas Supreme Court. The process for citizens to have initiative language approved should have clear standards and deadlines," Rutledge said.
Attorney David Couch, who has been critical of Rutledge for rejecting three of his proposed initiated acts to raise the state's minimum wage, said in a written statement: "I agree that the General Assembly should make certain changes to the initiative and referendum process and would be happy to work with the Attorney General in making the process better and more certain for all."
Asked if Gov. Asa Hutchinson had any thoughts about Rutledge's news release, Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis said late Thursday afternoon that "he hasn't even seen this yet."
Senate Republican leader Jim Hendren of Sulphur Springs said he agreed with the attorney general and called the system "screwed up."
But while he said he believed most lawmakers would support a fix, they would have to be careful doing so to ensure that measures going before voters are still checked for accuracy and fairness, he said.
"The review process needs to be quick and it needs to be final," Hendren said.
Some Democrats in the Legislature said Rutledge already has the authority to approve more citizen-driven ballot proposals if she wants to.
"It should not be used as a cover right now not to do her job," said Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock. "I think I could appreciate it a lot more if it wasn't on the heels of all these denials."
Arkansas Democratic Party Chairman Michael John Gray, who is a state representative from Augusta, was even more skeptical of saying that the courts had made the process harder.
"That's just her response to why she has not certified any ballot titles," said Gray.
Wednesday, Democratic attorney general candidate Mike Lee of Little Rock issued a news release criticizing Rutledge for rejected 70 proposed initiatives since 2016.
In his news release, Lee said he would work to clarify the initiative-review process from within the attorney general's office.
"As attorney general, I will institute a clear, public, and even-handed process to review initiatives and recommend revisions. But Arkansans should not have to wait. It is time for my opponent to do the work of the office to which she was elected. She should tell the public how these measures failed to meet legal standards and how they might be revised to clear the approval process, instead of exposing the state to litigation," Lee's release said. Rutledge and Lee face each other in the Nov. 6 general election.
Metro on 05/18/2018
Print Headline: Rutledge to ask legislators to fix initiative system