OPINION | GWEN FAULKENBERRY: Breaking down our baffling ballot issues

A few months ago a reader reached out to ask: "After reading the legal notifications of the amendments that will be on the November ballot, would you be willing to write a column that lays out what is really at stake?"

And then added:

"The wording is so twisted in the legalese that it makes me swimmy-headed!"

At that time I was neck-deep in preparation for the teacher pay rally we held in August, trying desperately to move the Legislature to respect the wish of the people of Arkansas (and the governor) to put raises on the agenda for the special session.

But I promised my reader I would. Then, after perusing them and becoming swimmy-headed myself, I realized it would take a deep dive for me to be able to understand the ballot issues well enough that I could explain them to anyone else.

I mention this detail because it is a problem with Arkansas politics, and while I would love to believe it is unintentional that ballot issues and legislative bills are often written in such a way as to have a vertiginous effect on normal people who attempt to understand them, it does give me pause.

I have a master's degree, and read and write, and teach college students how to do so, for a living. And it has taken me hours of research and several conversations with experts in the law to have a clue about what is really at stake in four ballot items.

How can we expect democracy to function if simply comprehending what our options are requires a Herculean task before we ever arrive at the ballot box? A better question, perhaps, is exactly who does it serve for this stuff to be so confusing? Not the common citizen. Common citizens have way too much work to do in our daily lives to have to wade through such a morass before we even vote. Heck, just voting is hard enough.

But I digress.

Here are the ballot initiatives as I understand them after wading through the morass.

• Issue 1 is an effort at a big power grab by our seemingly insatiable power-hungry Legislature. It is an exercise in irony if I ever saw one. We have a super-majority of people who claim to represent the party of small government, whose candidates rail on and on in their ads about big government control and how dangerous it is. And yet, since this group has taken over the General Assembly, the job of legislator, which is supposed to be a part-time gig so that elected leaders also work real jobs like their constituents, has turned into more of a full-time job with full-time pay and benefits.

Instead of meeting biennially--once every two years for 60 days--as intended, the Legislature already increased its members' self-importance by passing an amendment that calls for a fiscal session in the odd years. So now, they meet every year, as well as for special sessions.

These are supposed to be called at the governor's discretion for things that absolutely cannot wait. The General Assembly is limited to the governor's judgment as to what constitutes a true emergency unless a two-thirds majority puts something on the special session agenda, like they refused to do in August for teacher pay. (Apparently, the tax cut for wealthy Arkansans was the only emergency they could agree on.)

So what is really at stake with Issue 1 is an expansion of power for the government. If it passes, the General Assembly will be able to call themselves into power at any time, whenever they want, overriding the discretion of the governor, and collecting per diem from us taxpayers for every extra day they meet. Voters who believe in limited government will not be for Issue 1 if they understand what it is really about.

• Issue 2 is another power grab, but this time less about un-balancing the branches of government in favor of the Legislature, and more about making sure Arkansas never lives up to its motto of "Regnat Populus," or "the People Rule."

There is a faction of legislators Rex Nelson calls the "Know Nothings" who are so afraid of the people actually ruling ourselves that they want to make it harder to pass ballot initiatives.

Currently, when someone proposes a constitutional amendment through direct democracy, putting it on the ballot instead of sending it through the legislative process, it takes a simple majority, or 50 percent of the vote at the polls, to get it done. This is how everyday Arkansans legalized medical marijuana, passed casinos, and raised the minimum wage twice in recent years, regardless of how some legislators and their corporate sponsors fought these changes.

The Know Nothings do know one thing: It is harder to control ideas people directly vote on than ideas that have to jump through all of the hoops of their committees to make it to the House and Senate floors. Issue 2 would require a 60 percent super-majority at the polls instead of a simple majority for us to be able to pass a ballot initiative.

What is really at stake with Issue 2 is taking power away from the people. The Know Nothings don't like direct democracy, because it means the people can bypass the Legislature and create our own laws. So they would like to make it harder for us to do so. Again, voters who prefer smaller government/believe in direct democracy will not support Issue 2.

• Issue 3 is also created by Know Nothings, and does nothing of substance. We already have freedom of religion in this state. It was approved by voters in 1874 and has served us well though many dangers, toils, and snares. Issue 3 is an opportunity for its sponsors to make the public point that under their watch, Arkansas will not only follow the federal and state constitutional laws that protect freedom of religion, but will do that bigly, the best you ever saw, in a huge way, perhaps even in a way that has never been seen before in Arkansas. The language is that vague, and there is little direction about how it should be interpreted if it becomes law.

So what is really at stake with Issue 3, as far as I can tell, is not much. It is a waste of energy at best and a political stunt that embarrasses our state at worst. The very worst is that it could open us up to lawsuits because it attempts to take a wise, reasonable law--freedom of religion--and radicalize it, or possibly weaponize it. But, if that is the intent, it seems not an especially sharp weapon. Voters annoyed by grandstanding will be against it.

• Issue 4, which would legalize recreational marijuana, is the most complicated. Even as I write about it I grit my teeth because I figure if there is anyone left in this state I have not offended, I will manage to do it here: I wish Issue 4 never made it to the ballot. It is horrible. And not because I am against legalization.

I have mixed feelings about whether we should legalize marijuana for recreation. If this was a better bill I would likely vote to legalize it just because I like limited government. If legalized, it would need to be taxed and regulated, and we would have a responsibility to forgive those with possession charges in the past.

But Issue 4 is egregious because it doesn't do that. It leaves those with past possession charges to languish. Furthermore, it is a money grab sneaked into something those money grabbers know 59 percent of Arkansans say they are for: legalization.

The eight existing medical marijuana cultivators in Arkansas are behind this bill in order to monopolize the industry. As written, Issue 4 permits virtually no new competition; all weed--for any purpose, medical or recreational--must be produced by the existing eight cultivators. There's some token provision for a second tier to grow a few plants, but the anti-competitive nature of the plan is clear. It creates a monopoly.

What is really at stake with Issue 4 is whether we want to enable the present eight cultivators of medical marijuana to get exorbitantly richer by limiting competition and creating a monopoly, and also force people to continue to pay for past drug-related offenses we now deem to be legal.

There are those who will vote against this bill because they are against legalization. The question for the other 59 percent is whether it is worth it to legalize the wrong way, or can we vote this down, then come back with a better bill that does it the right way?

It is probably obvious I am against all four. This is an opinion column, and I'm thankful for readers who trust me to help sort things out. But if you'd like more information here's a source that helped me think critically and come to my own conclusions, as I hope everyone will: www.uaex.uada.edu/business-communities/voter-education/state-ballot-issues.aspx

Gwen Ford Faulkenberry is an English teacher and editorial director of the non-partisan group Arkansas Strong. (http://arstrong.org) Email her at gfaulkenberry@hotmail.com.