For the fourth time, Arkansans will vote on legislative term limits. The big difference with Issue 2 this November is that it would remove the current lifetime ban.
The proposed amendment to the Arkansas Constitution would limit state legislators to 12 consecutive years served in any combination in the House and/or Senate. After sitting out four years, they could run for office again – but this time, not as incumbents.
State lawmakers currently are limited to 16 years served in any combination of the House and Senate – for life. Some senators have a two-year term at the end of the decade that doesn’t count as part of the 16. That would not be the case with this amendment.
Like the state’s current term limits law, it would apply only to state lawmakers and not to Congress. Limiting congressional terms requires amending the U.S. Constitution.
The amendment’s sponsor, Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, said he’s always been a term limits supporter, including when Arkansans in 1992 passed the state’s first term limits amendment. That one limited House members to three two-year terms and senators to two four-year terms.
But he quickly decided once he became a senator in 2013 that the terms were too limited. An “experienced” House member in his last term had served only four years, or two full legislative sessions. Like anything else, it takes time to learn how to be a legislator, and most have other jobs unless they’re retired. His family owns Clark’s Building and Decorating Center in Hot Springs.
Clark said he spends the biggest part of his time not passing laws but serving constituents, some of whom have been treated poorly by the government. Bureaucracies pay more attention to veteran lawmakers than new ones, he said.
Moreover, Clark had always been troubled by the lifetime ban, which prevents constituents from returning to office a good legislator even if they want to do so. The current system keeps lawmakers who served ably in their 20s and 30s from returning to office in their 50s and 60s. Only five other states have a lifetime ban.
If Issue 2 passes, term-limited lawmakers who want to return to office after four years would lose the advantage of incumbency. They would have to run as challengers against an incumbent or at least against other challengers for an open seat. But Clark said lawmakers rarely return to office in states where they can.
Those are reasonable arguments. I’m voting for it.
But there are details you might want to consider. First, the four-year break is required only after serving 12 consecutive years. If they serve 10, they could sit out two and run again with a fresh 12 available. Again, they would lose the advantage of incumbency. Tim Jacob, a longtime term limits supporter, said lawmakers could let a spouse or caretaker hold the seat for them. Also, current lawmakers and those elected this November would be “grandfathered in,” or “grandmothered” as the case may be. They can serve their whole 16 years rather than 12, though just this first time.
As mentioned earlier, this is the fourth time Arkansas voters have voted on term limits. The 1992 amendment passed with 60% support. In 2004, legislators asked voters to extend terms to 12 years. Seventy percent said no.
So how did we get to 16-plus years? In 2014, lawmakers asked voters to approve a wide-ranging “ethics” amendment that did a lot of other things, only vaguely mentioned term limits, and said nothing about the fact that they were being extended. It passed narrowly. Voters won’t see much of an explanation about this proposal on the ballot, either – just that it’s the “Arkansas Term Limits Amendment” and that it will amend the current law.
The pro-term limits group Arkansas Term Limits has been trying for years to get stricter limits back on the ballot. One purpose of this year’s proposal is to blunt that effort and offer an alternative. The group’s chairman, Tom Steele, is suing to keep the votes from being counted on this question.
Let’s assume the votes will be counted. In a nutshell, which do you prefer: the current 16-plus years and a lifetime ban, or the proposed 12 years with the ability to come back after four?
Those are your choices, this time.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist who focuses on Arkansas politics. He is a regular contributor to Talk Business and a frequent panelist on Arkansas PBS’s public affairs show, “Arkansas Week." He publishes a blog, independentarkansas.com . Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner .