Term lim­its re­dux; mea­sure on bal­lot for con­sid­er­a­tion

The Times (Northeast Benton County) - - OPINION - BRENDA BLAGG Brenda Blagg is a free­lance colum­nist and long­time jour­nal­ist in North­west Arkansas. Email her at bren­da­jblagg@gmail.com.

Here we go again, Arkansas.

The is­sue of term lim­its for state leg­is­la­tors is headed to the state gen­eral elec­tion bal­lot once more.

This will be the fourth term lim­its vote in Arkansas since 1992. If passed, the lat­est pro­posed amend­ment would make term lim­its for the Arkansas Leg­is­la­ture the strictest in the coun­try — 10 years max in ei­ther or both the state Se­nate or House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

What’s more, it comes in an en­vi­ron­ment in which a num­ber of state law­mak­ers have been ac­cused of cor­rup­tion, sug­gest­ing vot­ers might be more will­ing to reign in leg­isla­tive power than to study the ef­fect of such tight lim­its on the bal­ance of power in gov­ern­ment.

This is se­ri­ous busi­ness and vot­ers need to tune in what is be­ing pro­posed. Bar­ring a suc­cess­ful le­gal chal­lenge, vot­ers will de­cide the is­sue in Novem­ber.

Sec­re­tary of State Mark Martin’s of­fice re­ported last week that back­ers of this new­est pro­posal to limit law­mak­ers’ time in of­fice had suc­cess­fully sub­mit­ted more than enough valid sig­na­tures to qual­ify the is­sue for the Nov. 6 bal­lot.

Just shy of 94,000 of the more than 124,000 sig­na­tures sub­mit­ted proved valid. Arkansas Term Lim­its, the group back­ing the pro­posal, needed but 84,859 reg­is­tered vot­ers to sign to ac­cess the bal­lot.

Back­ers of other ini­tia­tives fell short of the nec­es­sary num­ber or have been given ad­di­tional time to try to make the cut, but ad­vo­cates for tighter term lim­its made the process look easy.

Of course, the folks push­ing these new term lim­its have ex­pe­ri­ence. At least some of them have been in­volved in the ef­fort for decades, be­gin­ning with the 1992 push that first brought term lim­its to bear in Arkansas.

Pre­vi­ously, in­di­vid­u­als could stay in the Arkansas Leg­is­la­ture as long as vot­ers in a leg­isla­tive dis­trict voted to put them there. Elec­tions, held every two years for House mem­bers and every four years for Se­nate mem­bers, de­cided who stayed and who didn’t.

The term lim­its im­posed by Arkansas vot­ers in 1992 came amid a na­tion­wide push for term lim­its. The move­ment was aimed more at fed­eral of­fice­hold­ers, but those were stripped out of the Arkansas pro­posal by lit­i­ga­tion. What was left were state leg­isla­tive term lim­its in­tended to al­low House mem­bers to serve three terms (six years) and sen­a­tors two terms (eight years).

It was more com­pli­cated than that be­cause of de­cen­nial reap­por­tion­ment and the re­quired re­duc­tion of some sen­a­tors’ terms to two years, which didn’t count against their to­tals.

Nev­er­the­less, Arkansas lived with those lim­its for a dozen years as op­po­nents con­tin­ued to ar­gue that the short terms left Arkansas with less ex­pe­ri­ence in the Leg­is­la­ture and a shift of power to the ex­ec­u­tive branch of gov­ern­ment and a heav­ier hand for bu­reau­crats and lob­by­ists.

There were re­peated at­tempts to pro­pose an al­ter­na­tive but the first to get to the bal­lot came in 2004, when vot­ers soundly re­jected an at­tempt to stretch term lim­its.

The pro­posal went down hard and op­po­nents of the state’s strict lim­its lived with them for an­other decade be­fore the Leg­is­la­ture re­ferred an­other term lim­its ques­tion to vot­ers.

The new pro­posal came wrapped in con­tro­versy, buried in a 2014 amend­ment that state law­mak­ers crafted for ethics re­form.

Any­one pay­ing close at­ten­tion knew the pro­posal also car­ried the term lim­its ex­pan­sion, but it was easy enough to miss, given that the ac­tual bal­lot ti­tle ded­i­cated most of its 157 words to ethics re­form. The term lim­its lan­guage was tacked on in the phrase “and es­tab­lish­ing term lim­its for mem­bers of the Gen­eral Assem­bly.” The mea­sure didn’t ex­plain that the state al­ready had term lim­its and some com­plained the lan­guage was de­cep­tive.

The ac­tual leg­is­la­tion re­fer­ring the is­sue spelled out that the num­ber of years a law­maker could serve would be ex­panded to 16 to­tal, whether in ei­ther or both the House and Se­nate. Again, par­tial terms weren’t to count to­ward the life­time limit, so some law­mak­ers could serve longer.

Vot­ers ap­proved the mea­sure, whether they fully un­der­stood it or not. Those are to­day’s lim­its. Ad­vo­cates for stricter lim­its set out fairly quickly to rem­edy the sit­u­a­tion and the re­sult is this 2018 bal­lot pro­posal, which would take term lim­its to just 10 years max for any law­maker.

But that’s not all the 2018 amend­ment would do. It also would strip the Leg­is­la­ture of its au­thor­ity to re­fer a term lim­its ques­tion to fu­ture vot­ers.

That right would be re­served to the peo­ple, which means any­one want­ing to al­ter term lim­its in the fu­ture would have to gather sig­na­tures and pe­ti­tion to get the ques­tion to the bal­lot.

Vot­ers, if they ap­prove, would cap leg­isla­tive term lim­its at 10 years and ef­fec­tively lock them into the state Con­sti­tu­tion for who knows how long.

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