Arkansas Supreme Court ends optometry law referendum

FILE — The Arkansas Supreme Court is shown in this undated file photo.
FILE — The Arkansas Supreme Court is shown in this undated file photo.

An effort to rescind a 2019 law allowing Arkansas optometrists to perform certain surgeries was quashed by the Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday, with the justices determining that opponents of the law failed to gather enough signatures to place the law up for a statewide vote.

The court, in a 6-1 ruling, again pointed to issues with background checks obtained for the canvassers paid to collect signatures for the ballot measure in making their determination to omit tens of thousands of signatures.

Chief Justice Dan Kemp, writing for the majority, said that statements given to Secretary of State John Thurston by Safe Surgery Arkansas -- the group leading the effort to rescind the law -- certified that the group had “acquired” the required criminal background checks for its paid canvassers. Kemp said that the group was in fact required to certify that those canvassers had “passed” background checks.

Similar issues regarding the certification of background checks led the Supreme Court to disqualify two other citizen-initiated ballot measures last month. Those measures proposed significant changes to Arkansas’ method of holding primary elections and drawing political districts.

A fourth proposal, one to allow as many as 16 new casinos to operate in the state, was voluntarily withdrawn by its backers in August after Thurston said he would not count the proposal’s signatures due to a lack of a certification that the canvassers had passed background checks.

Arkansans for Healthy Eyes, a group formed to support the law expanding the practice of optometry, Act 579 of 2019, praised the court’s latest ruling in a statement Thursday.

“We are pleased the Court agrees with the Special Master’s findings that the group opposing Act 579 did NOT follow petition requirements and the measure does NOT qualify for the ballot,” read the statement from Vicki Farmer, the chairperson for Arkansans for Healthy Eyes. “Patients across Arkansas will now have improved access to quality eye care from the doctor of optometry they know and trust.”

Following the court’s ruling, three other issues remain on the state’s 2020 General Election Ballot. Those issues -- which include a permanent extension of the state’s ½ cent sales tax to fund highways, changes to legislative term limits and adding tougher requirements to get issues on the ballot -- were all proposed by the state Legislature in 2019.