LITTLE ROCK — Responding to suspected irregularities in canvassing efforts for two proposed ballot issues, a legislative panel Thursday began discussing ways the process could be improved.

State Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, requested an interim study on the topic after 70 percent of signatures submitted to the secretary of state’s office in support of two ballot issues, one to raise the severance tax on natural gas and one to allow casino gambling in four counties, were ruled invalid.

Doug Matayo, Martin’s chief deputy, and A.J. Kelly, a deputy in Martin’s office, appeared before the House and Senate committees on state agencies and governmental affairs and testified that they expect Martin’s recommendations to the Legislature next year to include possible changes to the ballot petition process.

They did not offer any specifics, saying it was to soon.

"We’re still going through analysis and legal review of what’s currently on the books and then balancing that against court precedents that have come down," Matayo told reporters after the hearing.

Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Bigelow, said the Legislature needs to act.

"We’ve got a situation here where people are simply not respecting the process," he said during the hearing.

Talking to reporters later, Rapert said the state already has laws against forging signatures on petitions and swearing falsely to their validity, but those laws do not appear to be sufficient to prevent fraud and give the public confidence in the petition process.

"Do we ban paid signature gatherers? I don’t know that. But I know that what’s happening is that people are coming in here without respect for the process and they’re getting people to sign, and sometimes signing themselves, just so they get paid for that signature and then they leave the state," he said.

Another possibility would be requiring paid signature gatherers to register with the state, Rapert said.

The state police and the sheriffs of Craighead and Crittenden counties are investigating allegations that petitions submitted to the secretary of state for the severance tax and casino proposals bore the names of people who did not sign them.

The severance tax proposal by former gas company executive Sheffield Nelson failed to qualify for the ballot. The casino proposal by professional poker player Nancy Todd has been declared legally insufficient by Secretary of State Mark Martin but was certified for the ballot Thursday because Todd is appealing that ruling and has submitted additional signatures in support of the petition.

If the state Supreme Court rejects Todd’s appeal, it could order that votes for her proposed constitutional amendment not be counted.