In 1992, Arkansas voters approved one of the country’s strictest legislative term limits laws: three two-year terms in the state House and two four-year terms in the Senate. Next November, they’ll have a chance to revisit the idea – unless the attorney general finds something to nitpick or somebody wins a lawsuit to keep it off the ballot, of course.
Referred to voters by the Legislature, The Arkansas Elected Officials Ethics, Transparency, and Financial Reform Amendment of 2014 would allow legislators to spend up to 16 years total at the Capitol. Instead of six years in the House and eight in the Senate, they could split their time however they manage to get elected, including spending it all in one place.
The term limits provision is one of several in the amendment. It also would make it illegal for candidates to accept contributions from lobbyists, corporations and unions; it would create a citizens commission that would set salaries for legislators, constitutional officers, and judges (all done by legislators now); and it would require former legislators to wait two years to register as lobbyists (it’s currently one).
I’ve summarized the amendment for this column. It’s actually 22 pages, though all of that won’t be on your ballot. That’s a lot to cram into one ballot referral, but legislators can refer only three amendments each session.
This amendment tries to accomplish a lot, and the more voters are asked to approve, the more likely they are to say no. They tend to distrust complexity because they question what’s being requested or who it’s benefiting, which makes sense. Some will say, "See, those legislators are just figuring out ways to get two more years to feed at the public trough by hiding it inside this big ‘ethics amendment.’"
I think the term limits part of this amendment is meant to solve what a lot of legislators legitimately see as a problem. Let’s discuss that part on its merits and hit the rest some other time.
The pros. The amendment likely would result in a more experienced Legislature with members in the House and Senate who serve up to 16 years in each particular body. The current term limits law has resulted in a Legislature without a lot of institutional knowledge – particularly in the House. Out of 100 members of the House of Representatives this past session, 40 had been elected to the Legislature for the first time in November, and none had served more than four years total except Rep. Denny Altes, R-Fort Smith, who previously served in the Senate. In other words, no one in the House except Altes was making laws when the state was still dealing with the Lake View school funding case that has determined where billions of dollars have been spent ever since.
Now the cons. Arkansas voters not only passed the term limits law with 60 percent support in 1992, but, in 2004, more than 70 percent voted against increasing the number of terms. In other words, they not only like them; they liked them more after they were passed. The whole point of term limits is to prevent a legislator from camping out in a seat and becoming entrenched, corrupted and stale. Sixteen years is pretty entrenched. Under the current system, legislators get up to 14 years – actually 16 in some Senate seats because of census redistricting – but they’re forced to leave their seat after a while, humble themselves, and ask the voters to let them serve somewhere else. Finally, these supposedly inexperienced legislators this year did fine. In fact, we’ve had term limits now for more than 20 years, and it would be hard to argue that the state is worse because of them.
Notably, no one is asking voters to end term limits – because the voters wouldn’t stand for it, and because the law has accomplished its purpose of bringing fresh ideas to Little Rock. The real question is, should term limits be tweaked?
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.