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.
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