LITTLE ROCK — A legislative panel said Tuesday it intends to study what can be done to ensure that the process for placing initiatives on the ballot is fair and free of fraud and irregularities.
Also during a joint meeting of the Senate and House committees on state agencies and governmental affairs, the director of the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission said he plans to ask for four more inspectors in next year’s budget.
With little discussion Tuesday, the legislative panel approved a request by Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, for an interim study to look at signature collection problems experienced by two groups trying to get proposals on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Key told the committee his request was in response to recent reports that there were suspected canvassing improprieties with two ballot issue campaigns that submitted tens of thousands of bogus signatures.
The ballot issues were a proposed initiated act by former gas executive Sheffield Nelson that would raise the severance tax on natural gas from 5 percent to 7 percent, and a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow casino gambling in four Arkansas counties.
Election officials were able to verify just 30 percent of the signatures turned in by Nelson’s group, Arkansans for a Fair Severance Tax, and 29.4 percent of the signatures turned in by Nancy Todd’s Poker Palace & Entertainment Venues LLC.
Alex Reed, spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, said election officials were concerned about the low number of verified signatures and discovered a number of irregularities.
Even though Nelson announced last week he was suspending his signature collection campaign, he still has until Aug. 20 to collect 41,160 more valid signatures to reach the 62,507 requirement.
Nelson did not immediately return a call seeking comment Tuesday.
Nancy Todd’s Poker Palace has until Aug. 23 to collect the additional 54,517 signatures to get its proposal on the ballot.
Key said two officials with the secretary of state’s office, which is in charge of verifying signatures for proposed ballot measures, will be at the Aug. 23 meeting of the legislative panel to discuss the various problems and what might be done to avoid them in the future.
He told reporters before the meeting that the state Bureau of Legislative Research also will study the signature collection issue and report to the committee.
The secretary of state’s office “said they would come back in August and give us basically their analysis if anything needs to be changed based on what they’ve seen at this time,” Key said. “I don’t expect there will be any major changes but they may see some things that need to be tweaked.”
Reed said later that A.J. Kelley, deputy secretary of state for elections, and Doug Matayo, the office’s chief deputy, will attend the meeting and discuss the matter with lawmakers.
Reed also said that meeting is separate from a review being done by Secretary of State Mark Martin on whether to ask state police to investigate the suspect canvassing problems, which include apparent forging of signatures, duplicated names and signatures of people not registered to vote on petitions.
No decision will be made on that until after groups complete the extra time they have been given to gather additional signatures and they are counted.
Two other groups also turned in petition signatures to the secretary of state’s office by the July 6 deadline in an effort to get on the ballot.
One of the proposals, a constitutional amendment to authorize casino gambling in seven Arkansas counties, was rejected for failing to meet a signature collection requirement.
The other, a proposed initiated act by Arkansans for Compassionate Care, would legalize marijuana use for medicinal purposes.
Election officials verified 55.8 percent of the signatures submitted by Arkansans for Compassionate Care. The proposal needs an additional 26,012 more valid signatures to reach the 62,507 threshold to qualify for the ballot. The deadline is Aug. 13.
Also during the meeting, Oil and Gas Commission Director Larry Bengal said four additional inspectors are needed because of the growth of drilling in the Fayetteville Shale play.
One inspector would be for southern Arkansas and the other three would be assigned to the five-county Fayetteville Shale play in the north-central part of the state.
The commission currently has 11 inspectors and three supervisors working the entire state.
Bengal said there more than 4,200 wells in the shale play area and the number is growing.
Bengal said that since the price of natural gas began dropping last year the number of well permits has dropped from an average of 60 to 80 a month to about 40 a month, but he said he expects permits to begin rising when the price of natural gas starts going up.