- Associated Press - Thursday, December 12, 2019

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the state must count thousands of signatures that were submitted in favor of holding a referendum on a new law expanding the procedures optometrists can perform.

In a 4-3 ruling, justices said election officials incorrectly applied new ballot measure restrictions when they refused to review the signatures submitted by referendum supporters.

The new law allows optometrists to perform several procedures that previously only ophthalmologists could perform, including injections around the eye, the removal of lesions from the eyelids and certain laser eye surgeries. The law’s supporters say optometrists are already trained to perform the procedures but were being forced to refer patients elsewhere. It has drawn heavy opposition from ophthalmologists who say the change puts patients at risk.

The secretary of state’s office in August said most of the signatures submitted for the referendum weren’t counted since canvassers didn’t file paperwork required under a law enacted earlier this year. But the court ruled that the paperwork requirement wasn’t in effect at the time the signatures were gathered.

Secretary of State John Thurston’s office said it would comply with the ruling and begin counting the signatures.

“We are glad to move past this unnecessary hurdle and delay, and we look forward to having the voice of Arkansas voters heard next November,” said Alex Gray, an attorney for Safe Surgery Arkansas, the group pushing for the referendum.

Supporters of the eye surgery law said they were considering their legal options.

“We remain committed to doing what’s right for the tens of thousands of patients across Arkansas, who are counting on Act 579 to receive better access to quality eye care,” said Vicki Farmer, chairwoman of the Arkansans for Healthy Eyes Ballot Question Committee.

The court said the ballot restrictions weren’t in effect because language that lawmakers added making them immediately enforceable did not explain why there was an emergency. Justices declined to rule on whether the restrictions are constitutional.

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