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Saturday, July 21, 2012

The petitions — and then there were none

Posted By on Sat, Jul 21, 2012 at 6:09 AM

STILL WORKING: Opponents of the Nancy Todd casino amendment chat with canvassers for Todd, in a Todd blog photo. Both sides are still hard at work.
  • STILL WORKING: Opponents of the Nancy Todd casino amendment chat with canvassers for Todd, in a Todd blog photo. Both sides are still hard at work.

After much hubbub and significant sums spent for and against, it appears the citizen initiative process has but one proposal still firmly on its feet and I'd be willing to bet future news will rock it as well.

The Nancy Todd Poker Palace casino amendment is still undergoing review by the secretary of state's office for sufficiency of its signatures. You might safely presume that, as with other initiatives, it is also undergoing the even more exacting review of high-dollar Little Rock law firms with ties to existing Arkansas casinos (Oaklawn and Southland). They do not want competition and will use every legal means to prevent it.

By now, the Arkansas casinos undoubtedly know and have filed in their data banks the information that the signature of one Max Brantley appears on the Nancy Todd proposal. They might even have compared it with my voter card to see if it was I or an impostor who did the signing. I affixed my signature on the opening day of Riverfest so that I could talk to the young man circulating the petitions and learn how much he was being paid ($1 per signature, he told me).

He seemed like a college student earnestly picking up spare change (at least he picked up spare change until city police that night decided erroneously for a time that Riverfest could bar people engaging in the government petition process from city streets.)

Were Todd's other canvassers equally legitimate? Or were they like far too many of the canvassers working for the gas severance tax petition campaign and busily copying names from voter rolls in the same hand to make a payday? Sloppiness and petty fraud of temp workers is endemic to the petition process, as well as people who claim to be registered voters and sign petitions though they are not registered. But the 70 percent failure rate of the gas tax petition effort speaks well of no one. It's an embarrassment to leader Sheffield Nelson. It's a crushing blow to the Arkansas Municipal League, which gave its support to the effort and had supposedly provided volunteers to help the campaign get to its initial 62,000-signature threshold. The shale lobby is a mean and unforgiving bunch. Big money is at stake, witness the $1.7 million already spent by gas companies merely to prevent Arkansas from voting on the measure. They will exact a price at the legislature for that investment from those who vexed them, after first demanding a criminal investigation.

If the Constitution needs to be amended to suit the purposes of business, business need not worry about the laborious, nearly impossible initiative process. They simply petition the legislators they own to put a fix on the ballot. Or, if the issue is gambling, they can cook up a wholly spurious legislative scheme to do an end-run around the Constitution's anti-gambling provision and achieve it without a statewide vote. (What? You forgot that's not gambling at Oaklawn and Southland, but "games of skill" indulged in by trained students of the video arts?)

One casino amendment is already gone, though the backer promises a (doomed) court challenge. Sheffield Nelson hasn't quit yet on the gas tax amendment, but if he could only muster 21,000 signatures in months of trying, he's not likely to come up with 41,000 more in 30 days. Same problem faces the medical marijuana people, as dedicated and fervent a bunch as you'd hope to find. But years of labor and organizing for them still left them 26,000 signatures short. Their odds are long, too.

If, as I suspect, the Arkansas casinos do their work well, Nancy Todd will soon be similarly battered if not entirely defeated. She must clear not only the signature hurdle, but a tough legal challenge of the terms of her amendment. I agree with the Arkansas casino operators on this, if not with the goon squads they dispatched — as the gas companies also dispatched — to attempt to discourage petition signing. The scheme by which Todd sets up exclusive casino authority for her Branson investors without regulation or appropriation powers for the legislature is a dangerous, if not also legally dubious, scheme. She could argue, of course, that it is not functionally different in many ways from the lightly regulated scheme currently in place for the two existing Arkansas casinos. They only needed 69 signatures — 51 representatives and 18 senators, plus Gov. Mike Huckabee's acquiescence — to achieve their gambling expansion aims, not 62,000.

My bottom line prediction is that only legislatively referred items will be on the ballot when the smoke finally clears. These will include the highway contractors' proposal to raise the tax on manyof life's necessities for a four-lane highway construction program and a real stinker of an amendment that will allow local governments to raises sales taxes, not for public projects but to line the pockets of private developers. (The sales tax grab for private interests is a classic Trojan horse amendment, cloaked in an unrelated measure to help police and firefighters' pensions).You can already hear the business lobby's Just Say Yes campaign to the lobby-approved two-item lineup. Good for bidness.

The highway sales tax explains in part why all business interests, not just the gas companies, are desperate to keep Sheffield Nelson's severance tax measure off the ballot. It would make wealthy gas companies pay a pittance, mostly passed on to people outside Arkansas, to pay for road work. It's far preferable to the business lobby's plan. Arkansas legislators and highway builders want the people of Arkansas to pay more for their groceries, (CORRECTION: groceries are exempted) electric and clothing bills to generate profits for them. Hasn't it always been the Arkansas way?

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