State Capitol Week in Review From Senator Jonathan Dismang

Feb 21st, 2013 | By admin | Category: News and Features

February 15, 2013

LITTLE ROCK – In every regular session the legislature may refer three proposed constitutional amendments to Arkansas voters.

Last week saw the deadline for legislators to introduce proposed amendments, and 37 were filed.  The 18 filed by senators were referred to the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs and the 19 filed by representatives went to the House State Agencies Committee.  The proposals are in the form of Senate and House Joint Resolutions.

SJR 1 would require voters to present a photo ID when voting.  The identity card would have to be issued by a government agency.

SJR 2, SJR 5 and SJR 6 are tort reform measures that would establish procedures used by courts in trying civil cases. In 2003 the legislature enacted a tort reform law that set limits on how much a plaintiff could claim in punitive damages, and setting standards for admitting evidence.  However, a series of court decisions has eroded many of the original provisions of the 2003 law.  Supporters of tort reform want it written in the constitution.  If tort reform is approved by voters in a statewide election and written into the constitution, it cannot be struck down as unconstitutional.

SJR 3 would restructure the Highway Commission and the Game and Fish Commission to require that their members be elected, instead of appointed by the governor.  SJR 4 would require a 75 percent majority of the legislature for passage of all tax increases.  Now, some tax increases, including sales tax increases, require a 51 percent majority for passage.

Many of the Senate Joint Resolutions filed last week were shells.  They have a title that describes the general topic, but they have no details yet.  Examples are proposals to change the process for placing referendums on the ballot, to set ethical standards for public officials and to delineate the regulatory power of state agencies.  The details will emerge when the resolutions are amended by their sponsors.

School Choice

Three public school choice bills have been filed.  SB 65 allows student transfers with the restriction that transfers may not violate a federal desegregation order that is still being enforced.  Under SB 65, the transferring student is responsible for transportation.

SB 114 allows school districts to petition the state Board of Education for an exemption from the school choice law.  Exemptions could be based on the potential of transfers to racially segregate schools or to violate standing court orders to desegregate schools.  Also, the petition to not participate in school choice could include an argument that transfers would interfere with the school’s efforts to eliminate the vestiges of the Jim Crow era.

HB 1181 uses poverty as a method to regulate student transfers.  First, the bill allows transfers only to geographically contiguous districts and only if the accepting district is not in academic distress.

The superintendent of the receiving district may reject the transfer if the student is eligible for a free or reduced priced lunch, based on their family’s income, if the transfer would bring the district’s national school lunch count to more than 65 percent.

Last year a federal judge struck the entire Arkansas school choice law, in a lawsuit filed by parents who had been prevented from transferring their children because of restrictions in the previous law that were based on racial guidelines.  In a ruling that surprised many observers, the federal judge struck the Arkansas school choice law in its entirety, not just the racial provisions.  His decision has been stayed while the ruling is being appealed.