Unless struck down by the courts, ballot initiatives appear with only their popular name and ballot title, making an informed decision on complex issues challenging for most voters. This second installment on 2020 ballot initiatives will provide detailed information on Issues 1 and 2, both referred for voter consideration by state lawmakers. Issue 3 will be covered in the next installment.
Issue 1: Continuing sales tax for roads and highways
HJR1018: An Amendment to the Arkansas Constitution Continuing a One-Half Percent (0.5%) Sales and Use Tax for State Highways and Bridges; County Roads, Bridges and Other Surface Transportation; and City Streets, Bridges, and Other Surface Transportation After the Retirement of the Bonds Authorized in Arkansas Constitution, Amendment 91.
Issue 1 will ask voters to decide on a proposed one-half percent sales and use tax to fund maintenance, repairs, and improvements of the state highway system, county roads, and city streets. Food and food ingredients would be exempt, but the tax would be applied to other goods and services. The revenue from a one-half percent sales tax is projected to generate $293.7 million per year. Revenue will be divided with 15 percent going to the County Aid Fund, 15 percent to the Municipal Aid Fund, and 70 percent to the State Highway and Transportation Department Fund.
This would be a permanent continuation of a 2012 sales and use tax that was originally approved by voters as Amendment 91. Constitutional Amendment 91 allowed the state to secure revenue bonds for road improvements, but is set to expire upon settlement of the bonds or by June 30, 2023. So it is important to note that the current tax under Amendment 91 will continue until that date, regardless of the outcome of the 2020 election. If the tax is approved by voters, it will go into effect on July 1, 2023. If Issue 1 fails, legislators would still have one more chance to put it on the ballot in 2022 before Amendment 91 expires.
Issue 2: Changing term limits for state legislators
SJR15: A Constitutional Amendment to Amend the Term Limits Applicable to Members of the General Assembly, to be Known as the “Arkansas Term Limits Amendment”
Issue 2 proposes changes to an earlier 2014 constitutional amendment that implemented 16-year lifetime term limits for members of the Arkansas General Assembly, which consists of 100 State Representatives and 35 State Senators. If approved, this amendment would effectively remove lifetime term limits, instead implementing a four year “sit out period” that temporarily disqualifies the legislator from service in the General Assembly following the completion of their final term. Once that sit out period has ended, the slate is effectively wiped clean and the individual can run for legislative office again with a brand new term limit.
That standard would differ slightly for legislators first elected before January 1, 2021 as compared to those first elected on or after January 1, 2021. A legislator who was first elected before 2021 would be subject to a 16 year combined term limit, followed by a four year period of ineligibility for office, and then would be eligible to serve as an elected state legislator once again. For those elected on or after January 1, 2021 the term limit would be 12 years served consecutively, then renewed eligibility for office following either a gap in service or a four year sit out period.
Additionally those state Senators first elected on or after January 1, 2021 would include the two-year abbreviated terms caused by redistricting in their total years of service, while Senators first elected before 2021 would not be required to include that two-year term towards their current term limit.
Issue 2 is the subject of a pending lawsuit that challenges the ballot title created by the 92nd General Assembly in 2019. The lawsuit alleges that the ballot title does not meet the legal standard of providing sufficient information to voters. The plaintiff argues that the ballot language for Issue 2 does not adequately explain that it would abolish lifetime term limits and allow legislators to “essentially serve for life with a few dead periods.”. The Pulaski County Circuit Court will decide that issue in the days to come.