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Group sues over rejection of eye law referendum effort

FILE - In this July 23, 2019, photo, Alex Gray, an attorney for Safe Surgery Arkansas, delivers petitions to the Arkansas secretary of state's office in favor of holding a referendum on a state law that expands the type of procedures optometrists can perform in Little Rock, Ark. Safe Surgery Arkansas on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019, asked the state Supreme Court to reverse election officials' ruling that the group had not submitted enough valid signatures to force a public vote on the eye surgery law. (AP Photo/Andrew DeMillo, File)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Opponents of a new Arkansas law that expands the procedures optometrists can perform are suing the state for rejecting an effort to hold a referendum on the measure next year.

Safe Surgery Arkansas on Tuesday asked the state Supreme Court to reverse election officials’ ruling that the group had not submitted enough valid signatures to force a public vote on the eye surgery law.

The new law allows optometrists to perform several procedures that currently only ophthalmologists can perform, 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 is challenging a law that officials used to reject the petitions. The law requires canvassers to file paperwork that they have never been convicted of certain crimes before they can begin collecting signatures. According to the lawsuit, Secretary of State John Thurston’s office said the bulk of the signatures submitted by Safe Surgery weren’t counted because canvassers didn’t file that paperwork.

A spokesman for Thurston’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The group’s lawsuit argued the court should either find that the law on the canvasser paperwork wasn’t in effect at the time that it collected signatures or that the law was unconstitutional. The group argued the requirement “serves to destroy both the work of the canvasser and the will of the signers.”

Supporters of the eye surgery law said they’re confident the attempt to revive the referendum effort will be defeated.

“We are confident in the secretary of state’s application of the law and rejection of the petition, which included tens of thousands of unlawfully solicited signatures,” Vicki Farmer, chairwoman for Arkansans for Healthy Eyes, said in a statement.


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Andrew Demillo, The Associated Press