Arkansas AG approves LEARNS Act referendum proposal

Griffin said complex and lengthy ballot title could be an issue
Sen. Breanne Davis of Russellville (left), lead sponsor of the bill that enacted the governor’s education program, watches Education Secretary Jacob Oliva, as he discusses the bill during a meeting of the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 22, 2023, in Little Rock. (Video still/State of Arkansas)

Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin approved a proposed ballot title Monday from a group pursuing a referendum to overturn the LEARNS Act, the governor’s signature education law. 

Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students (CAPES) is leading the effort to allow voters to consider a repeal of the LEARNS Act in 2024. Griffin rejected the group’s first two proposals.

Petitioners must now gather 54,422 signatures before the end of July.

In a five-page opinion issued Monday, Griffin certified both the popular name and ballot title submitted by CAPES, but advised that that doesn’t mean the “ballot title meets all standards the Arkansas Supreme Court has interpreted Arkansas law to require.” 

“As several of my predecessors have noted when certifying certain lengthy and complex ballot titles, the Court has repeatedly warned sponsors of statewide measures about their ballot titles’ length and complexity,” Griffin wrote. 

A ballot title’s length and complexity has been a key issue in several cases, which have considered titles ranging from 550 to 1,000 words, he said. In most cases, the court held that a title’s length alone can’t render it legally insufficient, but it is a consideration.

A complex and lengthy ballot title can be an issue for Arkansans who are limited by law to ten minutes in the voting booth, Griffin said. At 8,154 words and 16 pages, CAPES’ ballot title is the longest in state history, he said.

“It’s ironic the same opponents of LEARNS that complained about reading 144 pages of a bill, now submitted a ballot title of more than 8,000 words, which is the longest in Arkansas history,” Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ Communications Director Alexa Henning said. “The radical left are playing political games with our kids’ futures and sowing unnecessary turmoil in schools.”

CAPES chair Veronica McClane said she was “incredibly proud” of her team’s hard work in gaining the approval from the AG’s office, and is excited to start gathering signatures.

“I am also disappointed the Attorney General feels our ballot title will be rejected by the Arkansas Supreme Court, even though he has the right to amend our submission as needed,” McClane said. “The people deserve to be heard on this important issue, and we will continue to work to make that happen.”

CAPES first submitted a ballot title on April 10 to the attorney general, who is responsible for approving initiative and referendum petitions under the new Act 194. The law also requires him to render a decision within 10 business days. Monday was the deadline for him to issue an opinion.

Griffin rejected the initial ballot title on April 24, citing issues such as  insufficient summaries and “misleading” language. CAPES submitted a second proposal on April 27 that Griffin again rejected on May 11 because it didn’t adequately summarize the 145-page LEARNS Act and was printed in a small, difficult-to-read font.

The group submitted its most recent proposal on May 19 after CAPES chair Veronica McClane met with Griffin and his staff. Griffin told the Arkansas Advocate at that time that he believed the group left with a better understanding of the ballot title review process.

The referendum process requires petitioners to gather signatures within 90 days from the end of the 94th General Assembly, which adjourned on May 1. CAPES must collect the signatures from 50 countiesAct 236 increased that number from 15 counties earlier this year.

Republican Sen. Bryan King of Green Forest and the League of Women Voters filed a lawsuit three days after that bill was signed into law in March, arguing it’s unconstitutional. Griffin has filed a motion to dismiss the case.

CAPES is part of another lawsuit that argues the LEARNS Act is not yet law because the legislation’s emergency clause wasn’t passed by a separate roll-call vote garnering a two-thirds majority as required by the state Constitution. 

The lawsuit led to a Pulaski County judge issuing a temporary restraining order on May 26 that blocks implementation of the LEARNS Act.

The Arkansas Supreme Court on Friday denied Griffin’s motion to lift the restraining order, while granting a motion for expedited consideration. The high court is likely to make a decision this week. 

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herb Wright has set a hearing on his restraining order for June 20. If the emergency clause is ruled invalid, the LEARNS Act would not be in effect until Aug. 1.

This story first appeared in Arkansas Advocate and is being republished through a Creative Commons License. See the original story here.

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