Until 2014, Arkansas had one of the strictest legislative term limits laws in the country. After November, it could be even stricter, and the result would be a new state Legislature four-and-a-half years from now.
Those things would happen if voters approve a ballot proposal that would restore limits to levels passed in 1992 — along with a major new one.
That year, voters enacted limits of three two-year terms in the Arkansas House and two four-year terms in the Senate. They also capped the state’s constitutional officers (governor, lieutenant governor, etc.) to two four-year terms and also limited congressional terms, but those were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
This latest proposal would add a 10-year cumulative limit for service in both the House and Senate. A House member who served two terms then could run for only one full term in the Senate, while a two-term senator could serve only one term in the House. Partial terms would count against the total.
Probably few legislators would be able to time things where they actually served 10 years. If they served two Senate terms, they’d probably be done, and how many two- and three-term House members would run for the Senate knowing they’d only get one term?
Arkansas Term Limits has submitted 135,590 signatures to the secretary of state’s office, which must confirm that 84,859 are valid. If the effort is a little short, it will qualify for a 30-day “cure period” to collect more. Then it must survive any lawsuits filed against it.
If it does, then term limits will be on the ballot for the fourth time in 26 years. The 1992 law passed with almost 60 percent support. In 2004, legislators referred an amendment that would have increased the number of terms. Seventy percent said no.
Then in 2014, legislators referred to voters a far-reaching “ethics” amendment that, among its many provisions, lengthened the amount of time legislators could serve to 16 cumulative years in the House and/or Senate. Partial terms don’t count, and neither do two-year terms served in the Senate because of legislative redistricting as a result of the census.
That ballot title said merely that the package was “establishing” term limits. I generally believe most legislators are decent people, like most of us. But they sure pulled a fast one on the voters that time. It passed, 52-48 percent.
Now, four years later, Arkansas Term Limits is back with its even stricter amendment that seems likely to pass. It also seeks to bar legislators from seeking another term limits amendment on their own.
Supporters say term limits prevent legislators from becoming entrenched in their seats, able to use the power of incumbency and seniority to squash competition, and susceptible to corruption.
A case can be made either way on the corruption issue. Sen. Nick Wilson, D-Pocahontas, amassed enormous power over almost three decades and then spent almost six years in prison after being charged in 1999. The five ex-legislators recently convicted of corruption charges had served between four and 16 years.
Opponents argue that voters already can limit terms at the ballot box. They say term limits force good legislators out of office and rob the Legislature of institutional knowledge. They say they weaken the part-time branch versus the full-time executive and judicial branches, state agencies, and lobbyists. Supporters counter that lobbyists often oppose term limits.
Supporters also say term limits ensure fresh faces cycle into the Legislature, which is true. When the 1992 amendment started taking effect in 1998, almost half the House turned over as a result. This time, up to 62 House members and 23 senators would be in their final terms after November as a result of the amendment. That’s according to numbers provided to Talk Business & Politics by Bill Stovall, executive director of Arkansas Community Colleges and former speaker of the House.
Counting other reasons for departure as well as a current vacancy, at least 80 of the 100 House seats would be occupied by a new legislator after the 2020 elections. The same would be true for at least 30 of the 35 Senate seats after 2022. So basically, we’d have a new Legislature after that.
Of course, the first step is to count the signatures. Did you notice that supporters submitted almost 51,000 more than they needed?
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.