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story.lead_photo.caption Absentee ballots come out of a printer on Wednesday Sept. 16 2020 at the Benton County Clerk's Office. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)

Arkansas voters on Tuesday approved a constitutional amendment that will permanently extend the state’s 0.5% sales tax for roads and highways as well as a constitutional amendment that will end lifetime term limits for state lawmakers.

But they rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have made it more difficult for citizen groups to qualify ballot measures for general election ballots and increased the voting threshold for the state Legislature to refer proposed constitutional amendments to voters.

In the 2019 regular session, the Arkansas General Assembly referred all three proposed constitutional amendments to voters.

Issue 1

Issue 1 is the constitutional amendment to make permanent the state’s 0.5% sales tax for highways and roads, which voters approved in November 2012 for a 10-year period. The 0.5% sales tax — which had been set to expire in June 2023 — is levied under Amendment 91 to the Arkansas Constitution.

State officials project that voter approval of Issue 1 will raise about $205 million a year for the state Department of Transportation for highways and about $44 million a year each for cities and counties for roads in the future.

With 93% of precincts reporting, unofficial returns were:

For 636,985

Against 516,591

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a written statement that approval of Issue 1 is a boost for jobs and the state’s economy.

“I am personally gratified that Arkansans are willing to invest in our highways and our state’s growth,” the Republican governor said.

“I appreciate the courage of the General Assembly in giving the voters a chance to say ‘yes’ to the future. This is a big victory and this gives us a long-term solution for our highways and infrastructure,” Hutchinson said.

Ryan Norris, chairman of No Permanent Tax, No on Issue 1 committee, said Tuesday night in a written statement that “we are proud of the effort that the coalition gave to educating Arkansans on the reasons to vote no on Issue #1.”

“We knew it would be a tough fight,” he said, adding that his group was already planning for next year’s legislative session.

Issue 1 is the second part of Hutchinson’s two-pronged, $300 million-a-year highway plan.

The first part of Hutchinson’s plan was Act 416 of 2019, which the Legislature and the governor enacted in the 2019 regular session. That law is projected to raise about $95 million a year for the state Department of Transportation and about $13 million more a year apiece for cities and counties to spend on roads.

Issue 2

Issue 2 is the constitutional amendment that will end lifetime term limits.

With 93% of the precincts reporting, the unofficial vote totals were:

For 625,063

Against 505,256

Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, who sponsored the measure in the Legislature, said he believes that voters recognized his proposal as a good amendment.

Tom Steele, chairman of the Arkansas Term Limits committee that opposed Issue 2, said he’s disappointed that “once again Arkansas legislators have managed to trick the voters into lengthening their terms with a dishonest ballot ballot.”

But Clark said that “I take that as a personal affront.”

“I don’t have a hidden agenda and never have,” he said.

Based on his research, Clark said only about 4.9% of lawmakers in the nine states that allow former lawmakers to return after required breaks have done so.

In 1992, Arkansas voters approved the state’s first, and stricter, term limits. Amendment 73 to the Arkansas Constitution set term limits for state lawmakers as well as constitutional officers such as governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Amendment 73 limited state senators to two four-year terms and state representatives to three two-year terms. Beyond that limit, some senators were able to serve extra two-year terms because of once-a-decade redistricting.

In 2014, voters approved Amendment 94 to the constitution to loosen the term limits and cap the total number of years state lawmakers can serve at 16 years, with senators able to serve longer because of adjustments for redistricting.

Amendment 94, which was pitched by lawmakers, had other changes, too. It shifted the authority for setting salaries for state elected officials from the Legislature to a citizens salary commission; prohibited corporate and union campaign contributions to candidates; and barred lobbyists from providing certain gifts, such as meals and drinks in one-on-one meetings, to lawmakers.

Issue 2, which would be the third adjustment in legislative term limits, was referred to voters by lawmakers meeting in the 2019 regular session. Clark and Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, sponsored the proposal.

The proposal, to take effect Jan. 1, allows current lawmakers and any legislator elected Tuesday to serve under Amendment 94’s term limits, with the difference that once they hit the limit, they would be eligible to hold office again after four years.

Issue 2 prohibits lawmakers elected after Jan. 1 from serving more than 12 years in a row. However, those lawmakers, once they have served 12 years consecutively, will be able to serve again after taking a four-year break. The 12 years include two-year Senate terms resulting from the once-a-decade restricting process.

Issue 3

Issue 3 is the proposed constitutional amendment that would have made it more difficult for citizens groups to qualify proposed constitutional amendments, initiated acts and referenda for the ballot and increase the vote threshold for the Legislature to refer proposed constitutional amendments to voters.

With 93 % of the precincts reporting, the unofficial vote totals were:

Against 616,794

For 486,097

Sen. Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, who was the Senate sponsor for the proposed amendment, said neither proponents nor opponents of Issue 3 spent much money advocating their respective sides.

He said voters might not have understood Issue 3, but it was difficult to determine on Tuesday night why voters rejected it.

Kristin Foster, chairwoman of the Protect AR Rights committee that opposed Issue 3, said in a written statement that “Voters sent a clear message to politicians and special interest groups by defeating Issue 3 today.”

“The power of the people is not up for grabs in Arkansas,” she said.

Issue 3 would have required initiative or referendum petitions to have a certain percentage of valid signatures of registered voters from 45 counties. The designated percentage would be based on the votes in each county in the most recent gubernatorial election.

The Constitution now sets that minimum at 15 of Arkansas’ 75 counties.

Rep. DeAnn Vaught, R-Horatio, and Pitsch sponsored the proposal that’s backed by the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, Arkansas Farm Bureau and the state Republican Party.

The proposed amendment also would have eliminated the 30-day cure period, which gives proposal backers more time to gather signatures if the submitted petitions fall short on valid signatures but contain at least 75% of the required number.

Issue 3 would have required a three-fifths vote of legislators — up from the current simple majority vote — to put proposals on the ballot. That would be at least 60 votes in the 100-member House of Representatives and at least 21 in the 35-member Senate. Such proposals are in the form of resolutions, which require approval of both chambers but no action by the governor.

CORRECTION: Arkansas voters rejected Issue 3. An earlier headline on this story incorrectly stated the number of issues approved by voters, and the story gave incorrect unofficial vote totals for and against Issue 3.

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