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House panel advances voter ID change

Proposed amendment one of five heading to joint committee by Claudia Lauer | March 14, 2015 at 1:00 a.m.

LITTLE ROCK -- The House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee voted to recommend five proposed constitutional amendments Friday including a proposal to reinstate voter ID requirements.

The advisory recommendations aren't binding; the General Assembly will have the final say. Under Arkansas law, legislators can choose up to three constitutional amendments to place on the November 2016 ballot for voters to consider.

But committee Chairman Nate Bell, R-Mena, said the votes taken Friday signal wide support among the House committee members.

"There's nothing to prevent any of the other proposals from being taken up in the Joint Committee [on Constitutional Amendments]," he said. "There's nothing entered into the record on those advisory recommendations. It just signals to the Senate that these measures have the support to pass."

The House committee recommended:

• House Joint Resolution 1006, by Rep. David Branscum, R-Marshall, to define the term "infamous crime" in relation to disqualification of people seeking to run for elected office.

• HJR1005, by Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, to change judicial elections. Rather than letting lawyers run for judge, competitive elections would end and a "merit-based" system would select who is placed on the bench, supporters say.

• HJR1007, by Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, to require voters to produce certain forms of identification in order to cast ballots in Arkansas.

• HJR1012, by Bell, to authorize the General Assembly to enact laws that would certify an unopposed candidate for office without having his name appear on the ballot.

• HJR1027, by Rep. Jack Ladyman, R-Jonesboro, seeking to change the terms of office for a handful of county-level officials including county judges.

Both the House and Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs committees will meet March 23 as the Joint Committee on Constitutional Amendments to consider the more than 40 proposals that came from both chambers this session.

The Senate committee, which had 16 proposals, chose Thursday not to make recommendations on them -- instead sending all 16 to be considered at the joint committee meeting. Those proposals include an amendment to allow the governor to maintain his powers when he travels out of state instead of transferring them to the lieutenant governor, and a proposal to eliminate the Legislature's every-other-year fiscal session.

Bell said of the 25 amendments proposed by House members, only 11 pieces of legislation were fleshed out. The others were either withdrawn by their sponsors or remain in a shell bill form with a basic title but no other information.

"Clearly we don't need to be referring the shells," he said.

The Joint House and Senate rules for the 90th General Assembly require all proposed constitutional amendments to be filed with the Joint Committee for consideration, and Bell said those 11 fleshed out bills will make their way to that calendar. He said the House committee's vote Friday was meant to speed along what has traditionally been a complicated process.

"Getting enough members in their seats at that late point in the session, I think that will be the most difficult thing," Bell said.

A majority of the committee members from each chamber must approve the amendments for them to pass out of the joint committee. That means 11 of the 20 House members and five of the eight Senate members must approve.

The first three proposals to reach that approval will make it out of the joint committee, but the committee doesn't have to approve any. Several legislators have questioned whether any amendments are necessary this year.

"I don't know that we have to keep fixing the constitution that seems to be working. I know we want to tweak it from time to time, but I think the public quite honestly would be really proud if we didn't send any of the three to the ballot," said Rep. Kelley Linck, R-Flippin. "I think that would be pretty responsible of us."

Bell said he has had conversations with a number of members, "who have said they don't care if we don't refer any."

Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, said he would recommend, if there were no amendments members were really excited about, that the proposals referred out of the committee continue, but instead of sweeping changes, the committee consider "cleanup" bills such as Branscum's that fixes language in the constitution.

Infamous crimes are those that can prevent a candidate from running for the General Assembly or other offices including sheriff or county judge. The statute names embezzlement, bribery, forgery and infamous crimes as disqualifiers, but doesn't give a definition of an infamous crime.

Branscum's amendment would define "infamous crime" as abuse of office, "tampering" or a misdemeanor offense that found deceit, fraud or false statements including but not limited to fraud involving the election process.

Larger proposals such as Lowery's proposed voter ID amendment may have a harder time getting support, members said.

In 2014, the state supreme court struck down Arkansas' voter ID law, saying requiring a voter to present a government-issued ID in order to cast a ballot unconstitutionally created an additional qualification to vote. The qualifications to vote are set out in the Arkansas Constitution as: the voter must be at least 18 years old, a U.S. citizen and Arkansas resident.

NW News on 03/14/2015

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