Among the ballot measures that may appear before Arkansans at the Nov. 8 general election are four initiated measures that address three issues: Tort reform, medical marijuana and gambling. A summary follows.
Issue: Damages in medical lawsuits.
Popular Name: An Amendment to Limit Attorney Contingency Fees and Non-Economic Damages in Medical Lawsuits.
What it does: Requires the legislature to set a cap on non-economic damages that a jury may award in medical lawsuits, with a minimum of $250,000 per defendant; limits attorneys' fees to one-third of the net recovery in such a suit.
The stakes: A chilling effect. The amendment would discourage most lawsuits in cases of abuse or negligence by medical institutions such as nursing homes, given the time and expense necessary to bring such a case. The legislature would be empowered to limit the ability of a jury to award noneconomic damages — that is, compensation for harms that are difficult to quantify, like pain and suffering — to just $250,000, even in cases of extreme suffering.
Who's for it: The Arkansas Health Care Association, which lobbies for nursing homes, and nursing home operators such as Michael Morton.
Who's against it: Attorneys and patient advocates.
Here come the lawsuits: The Arkansas Bar Association filed suit with the Arkansas Supreme Court in August, arguing that the amendment would effectively abridge the constitutional right to a trial by jury. A second lawsuit was also filed in August by the Committee to Protect AR Families, a group formed to fight the amendment. That suit alleges that backers of the amendment didn't get the required background checks for paid canvassers before gathering signatures this summer.
Issue: Medical marijuana.
Popular Names: The Medical Cannabis Act and the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment.
What they do: Each would legalize medical marijuana. The initiated act would set a cap on the fees required for patients to get a card to purchase marijuana, place the implementation of the program under the state Department of Health and allow patients who live more than 20 miles from the nearest dispensary to grow a small amount of their own marijuana. It would also require that all sales tax revenue go back into the medical marijuana program. The amendment sets no cap on patient card fees, puts oversight of the program under Alcoholic Beverage Control, does not allow patients to grow their own marijuana and divides tax revenue between the medical marijuana program and other state funds.
The stakes: Sick people and patients with chronic pain will get relief.
Who's for it: See above. Also, former U.S. Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders and right-thinking people across the state. Who's against it: Arkansans Against Legalized Marijuana, a group that includes the state Chamber of Commerce, Arkansas Farm Bureau and the religious right Family Council. Arkansas Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe has been a spokesman for the group. Backers of the two rival initiatives have also sniped at one another. Here come the lawsuits: Arkansans Against Legal Marijuana has filed suit against both ballot measures, alleging problems with the language in the ballot titles. Meanwhile, Kara Benca, a Little Rock criminal defense attorney, has also filed suit against the initiated act, alleging that paid canvassers didn't follow the law when gathering signatures.
Issue: Casino gambling.
Popular Name: An Amendment to Allow Three Casinos to Operate in Arkansas ... .
What it does: The amendment would allow specific corporations, established and controlled by two Missouri investors, to operate casinos in Washington, Boone and Miller counties. The establishments would have casino gaming as well as sports betting, and be allowed to sell alcohol.
The stakes: The big money here is a battle pitting casinos against casinos. Current law allows "electronic games of skills" at establishments that offer parimutuel gambling — that would be Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs (horses) and Southland Gaming in West Memphis (greyhounds). Demand for gambling, alas, is high, while the state's various euphemistic rules keeps supply low. Existing establishments want to protect their piece of the pie.
Who's for it: Missouri investors trying to break in to the Arkansas gaming business, plus the Cherokee Nation.
Who's against it: Religious groups such as the Family Council and the state's two existing casinos — Oaklawn and Southland.
Here come the lawsuits: The Committee to Protect Arkansas Values/Stop Casinos Now, a group formed to oppose the amendment, filed suit earlier this month. The suit asks the state Supreme Court to disqualify the amendment, arguing that the ballot title is defective and questioning whether the paid canvassers met the demanding terms of the Arkansas petition law. The group has not yet filed disclosure of its financial backers, but Oaklawn and Southland will likely help fund the lawsuit.
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