The potential for exciting November elections grew last week with filing of petitions for three ballot initiatives to add to two already cleared by the legislature.
Three groups submitted sufficient signatures to qualify for the ballot. But the signatures still must be verified. And court opposition is always a possibility.
• CASINO GAMBLING: Here’s the amendment to finally and clearly make casino gambling legal at the Oaklawn and Southland racetracks (not just euphemistic “electronic games of skill”) and, with local approval, allow casinos in Jefferson and Pope counties. Indian tribes underwriting the amendment will seek the two new casino franchises. The racetracks are all for writing their protected status into the Constitution and to add bookmaking on sports.
The state tax take will go to general revenue. Backers want you to think the money will go to highways. Or something. Many legislators will covet it for another tax cut for the wealthy. How much money will it produce? Backers are throwing the number $120 million around, but this includes existing revenue from the current track casinos, which produced $64 million in the year ending June 30. Sports wagering WILL mean more money, and quickly, though both tracks already do significant off-track wagering business on dogs and horses.
Are Arkansas voters ready to end resistance to casinos? Church groups will voice some opposition, but they’ve cut deals with gamblers before.
• Minimum wage: Some do-gooders managed to get signatures together for an initiated act to increase the current $8.50 minimum wage to $11 by 2022. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge would have blocked it, but the Supreme Court finally told her to stop obstructing ballot measures. Minimum wage increases are generally popular. The state is at full employment, but wage growth hasn’t reflected it. This is a measure that might encourage some Democratically inclined voters to the poll.
• Term limits: This amendment was several years in the making. It would upend the legislatively crafted “term limits” amendment of 2014, which loosened term limits. Where lawmakers once could serve no more than six years in the House and eight in the Senate, for a total of 14, the new amendment allowed for 16 years of service, all in one chamber if desired. This change alone was of monumental structural significance, allowing legislators to build power bases in one chamber. Also, a quirk in the amendment – two-year terms drawn by senators after each Census – don’t count as service. So Sen. Cecile Bledsoe is running this year for a term that would give her 20 years in the legislature. With one more lucky draw, Sen. Jason Rapert could serve in the Senate 22 years. Term limits were invented by Republicans to oust veteran Democrats nationwide. It’s been successful, particularly in Arkansas combined with Obama hatred. This could encourage Democratic voters, too.
These initiatives add to legislative ideas that only the Republican-majority legislature and their corporate enablers could love. One would constitutionalize the vote-suppressing voter ID requirements struck down by the Supreme Court a few years ago. Nominally meant to address nonexistent vote fraud, the scheme discourages poor voters and has been cited as critical in hair-breadth Trump victories in a batch of swing states in the 2016 presidential election.
Then there’s Issue 1. It devalues human life by placing a $500,000 limit on noneconomic damages and discourages lawsuits further by a cap on attorney fees. What’s worse, it strips the Arkansas Supreme Court of court rulemaking power and gives it to the often corrupt and always corporate-controlled legislature.
A fortune will be spent on Issue 1 by corporate interests. Look to Texas for the sorry state of the nursing home industry after Texas insulated nursing homes from negligence lawsuits.
Together, all the ballot measures present ample reason for the normally voiceless to speak at the polls: Raise wages, throw the bums out, protect your right to vote, protect your right to a jury trial. Gambling? Somebody’s gotta win. Or lose.