LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas election officials on Friday rejected an attempt to hold a referendum next year on a new state law that expands what procedures optometrists can perform and sparked an unusually expensive and public lobbying fight.
Secretary of State John Thurston’s office said supporters of the referendum fell short of the nearly 53,500 signatures from registered voters needed to put the issue on the November 2020 ballot. Thurston’s office said it determined the petitions submitted had 23,953 signatures.
The new law allows optometrists to perform several procedures that currently only ophthalmologists can, including injections around the eye, removing lesions from the eyelids and certain laser eye surgeries.
The law’s supporters say optometrists are already trained to perform the procedures but are being forced to refer patients elsewhere. It’s drawn heavy opposition from ophthalmologists who say the change puts patients at risk.
Safe Surgery Arkansas, the group behind the referendum effort, says it’s prepared to go to court to challenge the petitions’ rejection.
“This issue is too important for special interests to get in the way of the right of the people to vote for safer eye surgery,” Alex Gray, an attorney for the group, said in a statement.
Safe Surgery spent more than $150,000 gathering signatures for the referendum bid and last week submitted more than 84,000 signatures. Supporters of the eye care law had said many of the signatures were invalid because canvassers hadn’t filed necessary paperwork with the state.
“We applaud the secretary of state and his staff for their diligence in accurately applying the law and conducting a fair and thorough review,” said Vicki Farmer, chairwoman of Arkansans for Healthy Eyes, which supports keeping the law.
Arkansans for Healthy Eyes sent a statement Friday evening, saying:
“We are pleased with today’s outcome,” said Vicki Farmer, chairperson of the Arkansans for Healthy Eyes Ballot Question Committee. “The real winners are Arkansas patients, who will have improved access to eye care under Act 579, and Arkansas voters, who can be assured with today’s rejection of more than 60,000 invalid signatures that special interest groups won’t be allowed to submit thousands of unlawfully solicited signatures and expect to unwind a duly enacted law in our state,” said Farmer. “We applaud the Secretary of State and his staff for their diligence in accurately applying the law and conducting a fair and thorough review,” said Farmer.