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Ballot case has special master; former state Court of Appeals Judge picked

by Michael R. Wickline | September 7, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

The state Supreme Court on Thursday appointed former state Court of Appeals Judge Sam Bird as a special master to hold hearings in a legal challenge filed by opponents of a proposed ballot measure to raise the state's minimum wage.

The measure is one of two ballot proposals on the court's docket. Both challenges are led by Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce President Randy Zook, who is seeking to have both struck from the Nov. 6 general election ballot.

The high court will have at least one other ballot proposal to consider after a circuit judge ruled Thursday that no votes should be counted for Issue 1, which would limit some damages and attorneys' fees in lawsuits and allow the Legislature to approve court rules. The state said it would appeal the ruling.

On Wednesday, a committee led by Zook asked the Supreme Court to toss a proposed constitutional amendment that would impose the strictest term limits in the nation on state lawmakers.

On Tuesday, the Arkansans for a Strong Economy committee, also led by Zook, challenged the minimum-wage initiated act, called Issue 5. That challenge says the secretary of state's office qualified the proposal by accepting invalid signatures.

The Supreme Court on Thursday directed Bird to file his report with the high court by Sept. 24. The court also granted a motion to intervene in the challenge by Kristin Foster, campaign manager for Arkansans for a Fair Wage.

The court also set a 4:30 p.m. Oct. 1 deadline for briefs to be filed and a 4:30 p.m. Oct. 8 deadline for reply briefs to be filed.

Zook filed his challenge of the Arkansas Term Limits committee's proposal, called Issue 3, individually and on behalf of the Arkansans for Common Sense Term Limits committee that he chairs. The challenge was filed Wednesday afternoon against Republican Secretary of State Mark Martin, according to court records.

The challenge was filed on the same day that former Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, was sentenced to 18 years and four months in prison, ordered to spend three years on probation, pay $1.6 million in restitution and forfeit $1 million in assets to the federal government for directing state grant money to companies in return for kickbacks. Woods was the Senate sponsor of Amendment 94 to the Arkansas Constitution, which voters approved in November 2014. Amendment 94 expanded the number of years that lawmakers may serve in the General Assembly.

The timing of the filing was coincidental, said Amanda Story, a spokesman for the Arkansans for Common Sense committee.

On Aug. 3, Martin's office determined that Issue 3 qualified for the general election ballot because the Arkansas Term Limits committee turned in 93,998 valid signatures of registered voters. The proposal needed 84,859 signatures to get on the ballot.

In his Supreme Court filing, Zook asserted that Issue 3's ballot title and popular name are not fair or complete and will mislead voters. He also contended that some of the paid and volunteer canvassers circulating petitions failed to properly collect signatures of registered voters and those signatures should be invalidated.

"Out-of-state interests have already spent half-a-million dollars to push this measure in our state, to benefit their national agenda," Zook said in a news release. "Plus, they're purposely misleading Arkansas voters. ...

"If this amendment passes, it would wipe out literally all of the institutional knowledge in our Legislature. That means more and more influence will shift to legislative staff, career bureaucrats, and lobbyists," said Zook. "That may be exactly what these national interest groups want, but I don't think it's in the best interest of our state."

But Tim Jacob of Little Rock, a spokesman for the Arkansas Term Limits committee, described Zook's comments as "complete double talk."

"Are they asking us to believe the most powerful lobbyists in the state are really worried about lobbyists gaining influence? They must think voters are stupid and don't deserve respect," he said in a written statement.

"A vote for Issue 3 will put these lobbyists and legislators in their place. That's why lobbyists are suing. They fear the voters. Let the people vote!" Jacob said.

Through the end of July, the U.S. Term Limits committee reported receiving $475,553.60 from the U.S. Term Limits general fund and spending that much to collect signatures. With offices in Florida and Washington, D.C., U.S. Term Limits advocates for term limits at all levels of government, according to its website. U.S. Term Limits' board of directors includes Jacob.

Issue 3 would limit lawmakers to serving a maximum of 10 years, three two-year terms as a representative and two four-year terms as a senator. Under the proposal, lawmakers' service on or after Jan. 1, 1993, would be included in calculating allowable service and it wouldn't cut short or invalidate a term for which a representative or senator was elected before its effective date on Jan. 1, 2019. The two-year term served once a decade by some senators after census-driven redistricting would be included in the 10-year period.

The strictest term limits are 12 years for state lawmakers in California and Oklahoma, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Arkansas, lawmakers may serve up to 16 years. Previously, lawmakers were limited to serving up to three two-year terms in the House plus two four-year terms in the Senate under Amendment 73, which voters approved in 1992. Under both amendments, some senators were able to serve longer if they drew two-year terms tied to once-per-decade redistricting.

In his filing with the state Supreme Court, Zook said the popular name of Issue 3 -- the Arkansas Term Limits Amendment -- is not intelligible, honest or impartial. It will lead voters to believe the proposal "only amends term limits when in fact the proposed amendment also amends the mechanism for amending term limits."

"The proposed amendment does so by partially repealing the General Assembly's constitutional right to propose future term limits amendments," Zook said.

Zook said the Arkansas Term Limits committee submitted a list of paid canvassers on Aug. 30, 2017, to the secretary of state under Arkansas Code Annotated 7-9-601, and more lists were submitted by July 6 of this year.

But Zook argued that the proponents ignored these laws by, for example, failing to provide current residential addresses, proper signature cards, proper criminal background checks and properly executed sworn statements for paid canvassers.

"When the invalid petitions and signatures are removed from respondent's count, the purported sponsors failed to submit sufficient signatures for certification to the November 6, 2018, general election ballot," Zook said.

In his court filing, Martin asked the state's high court to deny Zook the relief that he seeks and to dismiss the legal challenge.

In a letters dated Thursday to parties in both cases, Supreme Court Justice Rhonda K. Wood said that "out of an abundance of caution, I write to disclose that I have immediate family associated with the firm of Friday, Eldredge & Clark," which represents Zook in both the minimum wage and term limits cases.

"To my knowledge, they are not counsel in the above-referenced matter before this court. If either party has information that necessitates that I disqualify myself from the pending matter, please notify me by letter copied to all counsel," Wood wrote.

Metro on 09/07/2018

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