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The Arkansas Legislature has indeed made it more difficult for citizens to challenge the laws it makes.

Just ask the Safe Surgery Arkansas committee, which recently submitted what its leaders thought were more than enough signatures to get a referendum on the ballot in 2020. Instead, their petition fell way short of the mark.

The committee wants voters to undo Act 579, which allows optometrists to perform a broader range of eye surgeries in Arkansas.

The law faced strong opposition, particularly from ophthalmologists, when it was argued in the Legislature --but to no avail.

Lawmakers clearly favored letting optometrists do some of what only ophthalmologists had previously been authorized to do.

Introduced as House Bill 1251, the legislation almost got trapped. But the bill squeezed through a House committee and passed the full House with 70 of 100 votes, then cleared the state Senate with 25 of the 35 votes there. The governor signed it into law March 27.

The option left for opponents was to take the case to voters via referendum.

By late July, the Safe Surgery Arkansas committee reported turning in more than 84,000 signatures to the secretary of state's office, a number well above the 53,492 valid signatures needed to refer a proposed act to the 2020 ballot.

Nevertheless, Secretary of State John Thurston announced soon after that the petition was insufficient. The Safe Surgery Arkansas Committee submitted only 23,953 signatures that could be counted, according to Thurston.

How could there have been more than 84,000 signatures submitted and so few counted?

The answer is in one of the changes that the same Legislature made this year to the initiative and referendum process. The changes were in Act 376 of 2018, impacting the collection of signatures by paid canvassers.

This particular requirement was hardly the most significant of the changes to the initiative and referendum process, but it was the first to trip up petitioners for a referendum.

Safe Surgery Arkansas either missed or ignored a provision in the new law as the group started the collection of signatures.

Beginning in March, the sponsor of a measure was supposed to submit to the secretary of state a sworn statement from each paid canvasser, verifying he or she has never been convicted of a felony or crime involving fraud, forgery, identity theft or other election law violation.

The committee didn't file any such sworn statements until July 10 but did have canvassers collecting signatures before that date.

Thurston's office recognized the problem immediately and in fact gave notice just hours after the petitions were submitted that his office wouldn't be counting many of them.

Little more than a week later, he made the official count -- and rejection of the petition -- known.

Naturally, Safe Surgery Arkansas disagrees with the secretary of state's interpretation of the Arkansas Constitution and state law. The group intends to seek court action "so that the voices of more than 84,000 registered voters are heard."

Another advocacy group, Arkansans for Healthy Eyes, is supporting Act 579.

A spokeswoman for that group applauded the secretary of state's rejection of more than 60,000 "unlawfully solicited signatures."

What happened to those 60,000 signatures is good or bad, clearly, depending on which side a person takes on the roles of optometrists and ophthalmologists.

The difference of opinion will continue, as will the battle over this legislation.

Apparently, the courts will be asked to weigh in as Safe Surgery Arkansas seeks to resurrect its petition drive for 2020.

The issue could also be brought up again in the Legislature, although the environment there won't likely change much. Or another petition could be pushed for the 2022 ballot.

Meanwhile, the Legislature can claim success with its changes to the referendum process.

For now at least, the new law stopped public review of legislation that will allow optometrists to do some eye surgery.

Commentary on 08/14/2019

Print Headline: It's what counts

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