Many of the 37 proposed changes to constitution incomplete


LITTLE ROCK — On paper, Rep. Matthew Shepherd has proposed five amendments to the Arkansas Constitution.

In reality, the Republican from El Dorado has specific details about of one of the proposals, while the other four House Joint Resolutions are generic “shell” bills that Shepherd acknowledged he filed just to keep his options open.

“Obviously the filing … is driven by the deadline,” Shepherd said.

Many of the 37 proposed constitutional amendments filed by last week’s Wednesday deadline were shell bills, with substantive details to be added later. Some will receive strong consideration, others may not get a mention.

Among them are proposals to drop elections for state Supreme Court justices and name members of the state’s highest court by appointment, and to elect members of the powerful and autonomous state Highway Commission and Game and Fish Commission. Members of each panel are currently appointed.

Others call for changes to tort reform and term limits, as well as dedicating tax revenue from the sale of automobile-related items to the state Highway and Transportation Department for road improvements.

The Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs and its House counterpart will review each of the proposals filed in the House and Senate, then will meet jointly to decide on recommendations to the respective chambers.

Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, chairman of the Senate committee, and Rep. Andrea Lea, R-Russellville, chairman of the House panel, both said last week they would like to begin hearings on the proposals early next month.

The Legislature can refer up to three proposed constitutional amendments to voters in the 2014 general election. Lawmakers also can refer a fourth proposed amendment related to salaries to the ballot. No salary amendment was proposed this session.

Eighteen were filed in the Senate and 19 in the House.

One of Shepherd’s proposals, HJR 1005, would amend the state constitution to make the nine seats on the state Supreme Court appointed, rather than elected, positions.

“It provides, essentially, for the merit selection system for Supreme Court justices,” Shepherd said, adding he “thought it was something we needed to put forth with the idea being that we needed to look at ways to hopefully insulate our court system from the increasing costs of judicial campaigns in which judges can’t talk about the issues but as we’ve seen over time these campaigns are becoming more and more expensive. I think it is also worth discussing in terms of preserving the independence of the judiciary.”

His four other proposals — HJR 1011, 1012,1013 and 1014 — are shell bills, two of which could deal with judicial elections, if needed, and two could address tort reform, if needed.

“Two of them have two different names … we’re trying to give us some flexibility,” he said.

Two other lawmakers filed specific tort reform measures intended to address the state Supreme Court ruling last year that struck a provision of the 2003 tort reform law that specified who could be considered an expert in medical malpractice cases.

SJR 2 by Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, would require that expert witnesses in a medical malpractice lawsuit be trained in the same or similar discipline as the person on trial or have similar education and experience, and that attorneys file a “certificate of good faith” stating that they have a medical expert ready to testify that medical malpractice occurred.

SJR 6 by Williams would return to the Legislature the authority to set the rules of pleading, practice and procedure for all courts in the state.

“It takes things back over into the (Legislature) which is where it presided for the last 115, 120 years” until Amendment 80 was passed in 2000, he said.

Rep. Duncan Baird, R-Lowell, co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, has proposed adding a rainy day fund to the state constitution. Baird said there are a number of ways a state can contribute to such a fund, including with general revenue or adding a percentage of the annual end-of-the-year surplus.

Brandon Sharp, the state budget administrator, said there is already a rainy day fund in the state statutes, but no money has been contributed to it. Also, the governor has a rainy day component as part of his discretionary fund. At the beginning of the current fiscal year, that fund had about $20.5 million and about $9.3 million has been released. The proposed 2013-2014 budget includes adding $10 million to the governor’s rainy day fund.

Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, filed three proposals he admits he has no specific plans for yet.

“There’s not really a specific thought behind any of the ones that I filed right now,” Dotson said, adding he and other lawmakers decided to filed proposals with broad topics so they could possibly be available later this session.

The three he has filed are:

— HJR 1016, titled the Arkansas Public Prayer Amendment. Dotson said the shell bill was filed in case someone wants to pursue legislation similar to the prayer amendment that Missouri voters approved last year. That amendment stressed the rights of citizens to express their religious beliefs and the rights of children to pray and acknowledge God in schools. It also stated that children could be exempt from classroom activities that violate their religious beliefs.

— HJR 1017, which says it concerns extraordinary sessions of the General Assembly.

— HJR 1018, which says it concerns the application of Arkansas Law and United States law.

“They’re just some general ideas,” he said. “They’re basically a place holder for a category.”

Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, filed HJR 1008, which would transfer sales tax revenue on new and used vehicles, tires, batteries and automobile parts and services from the general fund to a New Highway Trust Fund.

Other proposed constitutional amendments filed include:

—HJR 1002 by Rep. Denny Altes, R-Fort Smith, a term-limits proposal which would allow state legislators to serve up to a total of 14 years. Currently, House members are limited to six years and senators eight years.

— HJR 1003 by Lea which would amend the constitution to provide for election of members to the Arkansas Highway Commission and appointment of the state highway director by the governor. Under Amendment 42, the governor appoints members to 10-year terms on the commission, and the commission hires the director of the highway department.

— HJR 1004 by Rep. Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, which would set new term limits for members of the Legislature. The proposal is in shell form and has no specifics.

— HJR 1006 by Douglas, which would allow counties to vote to abolish the office of constable.

— HJR 1007 by Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, which would determine the manner of publishing notices required by various sections of the state constitution.

— HJR 1009 Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, an ethics reform measure that also would extend term limits. Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, filed an identical proposal in the Senate, SJR 18. Woods also filed SJR 17, which would create a panel to consider pay raises for legislators and constitutional officers.

— SJR 3 by Sen. David Burnett, D-Osceola, which would require members of the state Game and Fish Commission and the state Highway Commission be elected rather than appointed by the governor.

— SJR 4 by Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, known as the Taxpayer Protection Amendment. It would raise the requirement for the Legislature to increase the state sales tax from the current 51 percent to a three-fourths vote in both the House and Senate.

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On the Net:

http://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/assembly/2013/2013R/Pages/SearchBillsByRan...