OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: The people get up

We have a bit of a theme for columns this week. It's that people in Arkansas are rearing up a bit.

Gadfly citizens-initiative guru David Couch, a lawyer in Little Rock, has written and filed a proposed constitutional amendment to make it easier for the people to get their own laws on the ballot, not that there is any dearth of such proposals in the works this year.

It appears that Couch and a coterie working with him are getting feistier about this "regnat populus" concept. That's the motto of the state, you know--long a bit of a hollow one, meaning "the people rule," which they haven't so much.

But the populist, government-restrictive state Constitution of 1874--written by folks who'd fled eastern settlements because they wanted a good lettin' alone--expressly authorizes the regular folks to initiate their own constitutional amendments and acts and get referred to them any acts the Legislature has made that the people want to decide themselves.

Only 15 states allow all of that. Most states accede to the American concept of representative democracy, with the people choosing the people to make the decisions, and defeating them if they don't like the decisions the elected representatives make. Arkansas and those other 14 states have authority to do a full range of what's called "direct democracy."

Our state's modern-day Legislature and state Supreme Court have made it harder in recent years for citizen groups to get their own proposed constitutional amendments and acts approved for the ballot and voted on by all the supposedly ruling people. The Legislature has been taken over by an arch-conservative ideology that rubber-stamps cookie-cutter legislation coming out of national conservative think tanks. These legislators would prefer that the people let them make the laws they assume the people need. One tough obstacle has become getting the attorney general to stop editing a proposal--and cutting into petition-signing time--before he approves it.

The arduousness has not been altogether bad. Arkansas probably doesn't want to be like California in that citizen access to the ballot amounts to a mad and mass dash. Having the people pore over scores of citizen-proposed laws on each general election ballot may not be the safest and most efficient form of governance.

But neither is a form by which a governor restricts public information and access while ramming heavily ideological right-wing policy through a choir masquerading as a Legislature that operates largely as an homage to a disruptive, conflict-driven Trump culture.

Arkansas voters, by their own citizen initiatives, often led by Couch, have in recent years raised their minimum wage, approved casinos and helped themselves to medical marijuana--none of which legislators would have done for them. It seems that Arkansas people aren't as rigidly right-wing as the people who win their Republican legislative primaries, which are tantamount to election just as the nominal, ideologically vague Democrats once had primaries that amounted to election.

But the prevailing political mood of Arkansans is conservative-leaning independence, not doctrinaire party-line obeisance.

So, earlier this week, while eyes were focused on the hard-achieved approval from the attorney general for proposed constitutional amendments to enshrine a freedom-of-information statute in the Constitution and grant limited permissions for abortion, Couch quietly filed another proposed amendment--this one to tamp down the arduousness in general.

What he proposes to add to the variety of petitions you'll be asked to sign if you venture out is a proposed constitutional amendment doing seven significant things. It would prohibit the Legislature from changing a constitutional amendment or initiated act by a two-thirds vote; require the attorney general to approve or rewrite a proposal in 10 days with a direct appeal to the state Supreme Court if the proponents don't like the rewrite; require all legislative acts to have ballot titles and popular names to simplify the referral of them to the people; forbid any proposed constitutional amendment to create a business monopoly; prohibit the Legislature from referring a constitutional amendment to change the citizen-initiative process; mandate that all legal challenges to an amendment must be made before petitions are circulated, and require legislative emergency clauses on passed bills to be passed 24 hours after passage to stop the practice of legislators approving bills and emergency clauses in the same vote and saying the votes were separate.

If all of what's percolating should come to pass this year, or even most if not all of it, the state Legislature might consider a resolution declaring a revised state motto, something like, "Regnat populus no jive."

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected]. Read his @johnbrummett feed on X, formerly Twitter.

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