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Arkansas House, Senate Pass Ballot Initiative Bills

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas’ Senate and House on Monday passed separate but identical bills that would change the way wording for ballot initiatives...

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas' Senate and House on Monday passed separate but identical bills that would change the way wording for ballot initiatives and constitutional amendments are reviewed and certified.

The bills passed Monday would give the Board of Election Commissioners instead of the Attorney General the power to certify submitted proposals after all signatures are gathered and submitted.

The bills also increase the punishment for petition fraud from a misdemeanor to a felony.

The Board of Election Commissioners comprises a bipartisan group of six designees, plus the Secretary of State who chairs the board.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who pushed for the bills, said the board's review of proposed ballot titles and popular names will "increase transparency by requiring a public debate and a vote," by the board.

But critics say the bills would make it harder for the public to submit petitions because it can be prohibitively costly to gather signatures for ballot measures which may not be certified.

Melissa Fults, who as the Director of the Drug Policy Education Group has pushed for multiple ballot initiatives, said the bills will cripple volunteer-driven proposals. She worries groups will spend months collecting signatures and have their ballot title or popular name rejected by the board without sufficient time to make the changes and gather new signatures.

"It can take as much as a year to a year and a half for volunteers to gather signatures and it's still very costly," Fults said. "They're going to find a comma that's in the wrong place or 'shall' instead of 'may'," and invalidate a possible proposal.

In both bills, if proposed language or signatures are rejected, sponsors of the initiative can then petition the state Supreme Court.

Republican Sen. Mathew Pitsch, who sponsored the Senate's version, said all the bill does is legislate language already in the constitution.

"It makes what's in statutory law match what's in the constitution. We have a very prescribed way to do petitions in the constitution and that's what my bill does," Pitsch said.

At least one of the bills needs to be approved by both chambers.