Nearly three decades after Arkansas became one of the first states to cap how long someone can serve in the Legislature, lawmakers may find out just how far voters are willing to go to limit their time in office thanks to competing measures on next year’s ballot.
In the legislative session that just wrapped up, Arkansas lawmakers sent voters a proposal that would rework the term limits on House and Senate members for the second time in the past several years. It’s a pre-emptive strike against another proposal a group is trying to put on the 2020 ballot that would impose the strictest term limits in the U.S.
“This is just about good government,” said Republican Sen. Alan Clark, who sponsored the legislative-backed proposal, which would remove the current 16-year cap and instead require politicians who have served 12 straight years to sit out of the Legislature for four before running again. The competing measure sets a 10-year lifetime term limit on legislators, and Clark says it “would devastate state government and people would never know it.”
But opponents of Clark’s measure scoff at it being called a limit, noting that lawmakers could serve an unlimited number of years, albeit with breaks.
“We’re calling that the lifetime politician amendment and that will be a very easy sell,” said Tom Steele, chairman of Arkansas Term Limits, which plans to start circulating petitions for the 10-year cap within the next month.
Term limits for legislators and other officials gained popularity in the 1990s. Fifteen states have adopted term limits for their lawmakers, though only six of those are lifetime caps, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. California and Oklahoma have the strictest limits, with 12-year lifetime caps on legislators. Arkansas’ 16-year limit was part of a campaign finance measure voters approved in 2014. Previously, lawmakers could serve three two-year terms in the House and two four-year terms in the Senate — a total of 14 years.
Arkansas voters approved the state’s first term limits in 1992, an effort that had the backing of Republicans, who were then in the minority. Now, Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature, all of the state’s congressional seats and statewide partisan offices. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down state-imposed term limits for members of Congress in 1995, eliminating restrictions that Arkansas voters had approved.
Clark said he campaigned for Arkansas’ legislative term limits in 1992, but now believes they went too far.
“Term limits was a good idea, but we made them too short,” Clark said. “We didn’t know we made them too short.”
Clark calls the 12-year successive cap a “happy medium” that will ensure lawmakers aren’t pushed out of office as soon as they gain experience, but will also stick to the citizen-legislator model by requiring them to sit out for four years if they want to return.
The state Senate’s top Democrat is among lawmakers who would rather see term limits go away.
“People always say they want to run government like a business. I’m not aware of any business that fires their board of directors or their management team every six, eight or 10 years,” said Senate Minority Leader Keith Ingram.
Next year will mark the third time term limits supporters have tried to put the 10-year cap before voters since 2014. One effort failed to get enough signatures; another was disqualified by the state Supreme Court.
The effort comes amid federal corruption probes that have already ensnared several former legislators and have prompted calls for ethics reforms at the state Capitol. They include a former state senator who co-sponsored the 2014 ethics amendment that included loosening term limits.
U.S. Term Limits, which spent more than $800,000 last year in support of the 10-year cap, hasn’t decided yet whether to spend on next year’s proposal, Paul Jacob, a board member of the group, said.
But Jacob isn’t worried about voters being confused by competing proposals.
“I think it’s a beautiful situation to have both measures on the ballot because it will allow voters to choose between the politicians’ phony term limit and the citizens’ real term limit,” Jacob said.