The Safe Surgery Arkansas ballot issue committee, which has proposed a statewide referendum on the fate of a 2019 law that would allow optometrists to perform a broader range of eye surgeries, reported spending more than $150,000 last month.
The committee is trying to gather about 53,500 signatures of registered voters to qualify the proposal for the 2020 general election ballot.
During this year's regular legislative session, supporters of the legislation that became Act 579 said it would allow optometrists to use more of their training and would provide easier access to eye care for patients in rural areas. But the law's opponents, including groups representing ophthalmologists and other physicians, countered that it would put patients at risk.
In a report released by the Arkansas Ethics Commission on Tuesday, the Safe Surgery Arkansas committee noted raising $173,250 in contributions last month, including $150,000 from the Arkansas Ophthalmological Society in Little Rock and $10,000 apiece from self-employed ophthalmologists Robert Lowery of Searcy and David Baker of Conway.
The Safe Surgery Arkansas committee reported spending $150,139.98 last month, leaving $23,110.02 in its campaign account as of June 30.
The committee reported expenses last month of $150,000 with Lawrenceville, Ga.-based National Ballot Access for petition canvassing and $139.98 with Raise the Money Inc. for credit card processing fees. The committee's chairwoman is now Laurie Barber of Little Rock, who replaced attorney Nate Steel, according to commission records.
The committee is required to collect 53,493 valid signatures by next Tuesday, according to the secretary of state's office. If the proposal qualifies for the ballot, then Act 579 will be suspended until the statewide vote. Act 579 is now scheduled to take effect next Wednesday.
Alex Gray, an attorney for the Safe Surgery Arkansas committee, said Tuesday in a written statement, "We've obtained more than 50,000 signatures and are closing in on our goal.
"We have been so encouraged over the relatively short time we've been canvassing to hear from voters who want to protect eye health and safety," he said.
"As we approach the July 23 deadline, we are confident we will have enough signatures to suspend Act 579 until the people can decide for themselves that trained surgeons should be the only ones performing these serious, sensitive procedures," Gray said.
But Vicki Farmer, chairwoman of the Arkansans for Healthy Eyes committee that was formed to support Act 579, said, "We're urging people to learn the facts before signing the petition, because we are continuously hearing reports of misinformation being circulated by the paid canvassers.
"Also, it's our understanding that in some instances, the sponsors of this effort have not complied with recent updates to state election law, which were put in place to prevent fraud in the signature collection process," Farmer said in a written statement.
Gray countered, "We want voters to learn the facts too -- the fact that high-priced lobbyists and special interests pushed this bad legislation through the General Assembly and the fact that Act 579 is bad for the health and safety of all Arkansans.
"These special interests are resorting to generic, untrue and actionable allegations in a poor attempt to undermine the will of the people," he said.
The Arkansans for Healthy Eyes committee reported raising $8,000 in contributions and spending $12,422.81 last month, leaving a negative balance of $4,422.81 on June 30, according to its report released by the Ethics Commission on Tuesday.
The committee reported receiving a $5,000 contribution from optometrist Shane Laster of Fort Smith and a $3,000 contribution from optometrist Jason Ellen of Tulsa last month.
The committee reported that its expenses last month included $10,000 with Hargraves Consulting of Little Rock; $1,252.58 with SourceOne Graphics of Little Rock for printing; $860 with Deepika Mehta LLC of Bethesda, Md., for logo and fliers; and $242.03 with Intuit Quickbooks of Mountain View, Calif., for office supplies.
Article 5, Section 1, of the Arkansas Constitution gives the people the right to refer to voters any act of the Legislature.
The constitutional provision has been used only once in the past 50 years to qualify a referendum for the ballot, according to Gray. In 1994, voters upheld a 1992 soft drink tax law in a referendum.
Existing state law -- before Act 579 takes effect -- allows optometrists to do a few minor procedures that are considered surgery, including epilation of the eyelash, corneal foreign body removal, debridement and insertion of punctual plugs, according to Amanda Story, a spokeswoman for the Arkansans for Healthy Eyes committee.
Act 579 will allow optometrists to administer injections around the eye, remove bumps and lesions from eyelids, and perform certain types of laser surgery now performed by ophthalmologists.
The law also will require the state Board of Optometry to establish credentialing requirements for a license to administer or perform these procedures. The law will require each optometrist who meets the requirements for certification on authorized laser procedures to report to the board regarding the outcome of the procedures and to also report to the state Board of Health.
Metro on 07/17/2019
Print Headline: 2 groups report funding on issue tied to eye care