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Term Limits, Minimum Wage Ballot Items Suffer Diverging Fates Before High Court 'Special Masters'

Bobby Ampezzan
Minimum wage ballot issue author David Couch at a campaign kickoff today.

Reports this week from Supreme Court "Special Masters" split the fortunes of two popular ballot measures set to go before voters Nov. 6. 

The two voter-initiated proposals turned in the required number of petition signatures this summer to qualify for the midterm election ballot.
Issue 3 would put term limits on state legislators of 10 years total, but this week Special Master Mark Hewett said nearly 15,000 signatures collected should be thrown out because organizers didn't comply with state law on the use of paid canvassers, a practice that most voter-initiated ballot proposal campaigns rely on to gather enough signatures, nearly 85,000 for an amendment (almost 67,000 for an initiated act). 

Credit Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA
Little Rock City Director Capi Peck has owned her own restaurant in the city for more than three decades. Bruno Showers, right, is a senior policy analyst with Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, which supports a statewide minimum wage increase.

Both Issue 3 and Issue 5 are being challenged in lawsuits by Randy Zook, president of the state Chamber of Commerce.

Issue 5 would raise the minimum wage in the state to $11 by 2021. The special master in that case, Sam Bird, recommends Issue 5 remain on the ballot. In fact, his investigation concluded the Secretary of State wrongly rejected almost 20,000 signatures, but they had enough signatures anyway.

"I think he did exactly the right job," said David Couch, the architect of the minimum wage amendment, from a campaign kickoff event and celebration at Trio's restaurant in Little Rock.

"One of the things we always stress in these situations is that you should respect the will of the voters and the will of the people who signed these petitions, and ignore any technical or clerical errors that occur, and I think he did that and I think it's the right thing to do."

Zook said in a statement following the special masters' reports that raising the minimum wage hurts business.

"I don't believe that," said Little Rock City Director Capi Peck.

Credit Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

Peck owns Trio's and has owned a restaurant in the city for more than 30 years.

"I start entry level people like dishwashers at 10 an hour. I can make it work."

Nathan George, who's family owns and operates Joshua's Fine Jewelry in Russellville, and who was at the kickoff, says it's the wider hotel and hospitality industry that Peck is a part of that "is extremely opposed to this," but small businesses generally "if you look across the state and maybe even the nation, are paying more than the minimum wage. They're already paying higher than minimum wage."

Meanwhile, Zook called the term limits campaign an "out-of-state" effort.

"Well, as you might imagine, [there's] tremendous disappointment," said amendment sponsor Tom Steele, speaking by phone from his west Little Rock home, about the special master's report and Zook.

What his Issue 3 and Couch’s and Peck’s Issue 5 have in common is popularity — both are polling at or better than 60%.

Credit Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA
Tom Steele

Steele didn’t want to comment ahead of the Supreme Court’s ultimate decision in the matter, expected in mid-October.

"There are other arguments that are going to be considered by the Supreme Court, so the special master's report is not the end of the story, necessarily."

Issue 3 lawyer Chad Pekron said it's not uncommon for the Court to come to a different conclusion than the one reached by a special master. It happened in 2016.

"In the Benca case, the Court actually overturned the special master's findings and went the opposite direction, finding that the master committed errors, and that's what we're going to be asking the court to do here because not a single signature was found to contain fraud or forgery."

Credit Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

"There’s no denying," Steele said, "that once U.S. Term Limits" — the national campaign to cap state and federal lawmakers total public service tenure — "threw in … that they helped tremendously, they got the bulk of our signatures, but simply to say this is an out-of-state operation completely minimizes the hard work of hundreds of volunteers."

Steele’s group, Arkansas Term Limits, has until Oct. 8 to turn in briefs in the case. Pekron says he expects the high court to decide the matter by Thursday, Oct. 18.

This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media. What's that? APM is a nonprofit journalism project for all of Arkansas and a collaboration among public media in the state. We're funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK. And, we hope, from you! You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media's reporting at Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.

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