That darned Ruth Reynolds is at it again.
Reynolds, a 70-plus Hardy environmentalist, leads an organization calling itself Save Energy Reap Taxes which turned in petitions Friday bearing the signatures of 4,989 Sharp County voters calling for an election on liquor sales.
Reynolds and SERT have been trying to make this happen since 2007. Two previous efforts to get the issue on the ballot failed, mostly because the organizers didn’t follow the state’s liquor election laws.
That’s understandable. Arkansas’ liquor laws are a maze, many of them making no sense. In fact, the law that allows a county to vote on whether liquor sales should be allowed within its border is a most undemocratic hurdle to overcome. Sponsored by then-state Sen. Lu Hardin of Russellville in 1993, the law requires petitions bearing signatures equivalent to 38 percent of all registered voters in a county.
That’s right, registered voters, unlike most other citizens’ initiatives under Arkansas laws, which usually require a more reasonable percentage of signatures, normally 15, of citizens who voted in the most recent gubernatorial election.
So, for example, a proposed initiated act that would have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes this year needed 62,507 signatures statewide. Sponsors of two proposed amendments that would allow casinos to be established in the state needed 78,133. Those aren’t easy hurdles to overcome, rightfully so.
But backers of a proposal to allow liquor sales in Benton County this year had to turn in 41,171 signatures in that county alone.
Considering that fewer than 50 percent of the registered voters in any county will actually vote, even in a presidential election year, those who want to call for a wet-dry election must get a number of registered voters to indicate their support that could actually carry the election.
That’s undemocratic, but it’s the law. It’s also ludicrous that we could get an initiative on the ballot to legalize marijuana with just a little more effort than it takes to have an election on liquor sales in one county.
Sharp County, which has been dry for nearly 70 years, doesn’t have nearly as many registered voters so the magic number for SERT this year was about 4,100, and the group’s leaders believe they have surpassed that goal. Now the county clerk will have to determine whether enough signatures are valid.
That’s not as clear as you might think. A petition carrier can only ask potential signers whether they are registered. Since voter registrations are public, signatures can be checked later, but that is a tedious process.
And the petition drive can be challenged in court on technical grounds. That’s what happened in 2008, when SERT completed its first effort. Circuit Judge Phil Smith of Pocahontas threw out more than 400 signatures because the petitions were not properly notarized or couldn’t be verified. That left the number of valid signatures under the 38 percent mark.
SERT tried again in 2010 and turned in petitions with more than 5,000 signatures. Alas, the Legislature had changed the law setting the deadline for citizen petitions to be turned in, and Reynolds admitted she didn’t know that.
You’ve got to hand it to her and other SERT members, though, because they started all over this year and tried again.
The petition effort could still draw a legal challenge, and if the proposal gets on the ballot, the opposition will be strong and well-financed.
SERT’s Web site (http://www.saveenergyreaptaxes.com) contends that an opposing group called The Committee to Oppose Alcohol in Sharp County, spent $56,018 just to keep the question off the ballot in 2008.
What’s especially interesting about Reynolds’ untiring leadership in this cause is that she doesn’t drink and she insists the issue isn’t about alcohol.
Sharp County is a rather odd county — geographically, I mean. On the map it’s one of the tallest in Arkansas, running the length of two other dry counties on each side. It’s also very narrow. And it’s one of the few 41 dry counties in Arkansas that doesn’t lie adjacent to a wet county.
Sharp County is essentially rural. Its largest town, Cherokee Village, has fewer than 5,000 residents split with Fulton County. Cave City, near the southern border, has a population just under 2,000. That means the county hasn’t attracted the large, chain-owned restaurants that like to obtain private club permits (Benton County has about 130 private clubs; Sharp, only a handful).
To buy alcohol, most residents must drive to the Missouri border, a good 20- to 30-minute drive round trip for Cherokee Village-area residents, longer for most others.
Needless to say, many Sharp County residents burn a lot of gasoline making that trip, which was Reynolds’ primary motivation — to cut down on the energy burned. Now, though, giving people the right to vote has become an issue, too, and supporters believe they have been shortchanged so far.
SERT is preparing for a campaign, though. The Web site invites contributions and points out that political contributions up to $50 qualify for a $50 per taxpayer credit on state income taxes.
However, the group found an unlikely opponent in 2008. One of the lawsuits challenging its petition was financed in large part by Missouri liquor interests. It seems they don’t mind the extra gasoline being burned.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.