Editor’s note: Justin Allen is a partner with the Little Rock-based law firm of Wright Lindsey Jennings. He leads the firm’s governmental relations group.
Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of Talk Business & Politics.
While we will elect a new President in 2016, voters in Arkansas will decide some important policy issues at the polls. For certain, voters will consider the three legislatively referred proposals to amend the Constitution, which include longer terms for county officials, the retention of power by the Governor when out of state and a complicated measure addressing government promotion of economic development.
In terms of proposals offered by the people, there could be multiple measures on the ballot seeking to legalize marijuana use in some form or another. But, lurking out there yet again is a proposal which would change term limits for members of the Arkansas General Assembly.
Arkansans first adopted term limits in 1992, prohibiting a person from serving more than three 2 year terms in the House and two 4 year terms in the Senate. In 2014, voters approved Issue 3, which resulted in Amendment 94 to the Arkansas Constitution. Issue 3, referred by the General Assembly, contained several provisions that, among them, modified term limits by allowing a person to serve a total of 16 years in the legislature, all of which could be in the House, the Senate or a combination thereof.
On Aug. 6 of last year, the Attorney General approved the wording of the “Arkansas Term Limits Amendment of 2016.” This measure would return Arkansas to the original terms limits adopted in 1992, but would go further by prohibiting a person from serving more than 10 years in the General Assembly in the aggregate. It also contains a rather extraordinary provision that would prohibit the General Assembly from ever again referring a term limits measure to the people. Finally, the limitation period would not begin anew in 2017, but would include any service since Jan. 1, 1993.
The proponents of this measure are of the belief that Issue 3, as presented on the ballot, was misleading to voters because the popular name and ballot title merely stated that it was to “set term limits.” Thus, the argument goes, voters didn’t know they were effectively extending them, but perhaps believed they were establishing them. As a result, the proponents believe voters should be given another opportunity to pass upon term limits in 2016. Regardless of what voters thought, this writer will acknowledge that neither the popular name nor the ballot title for Issue 3 informed voters of the existing term limits and how Issue 3 would modify them.
Anyone who follows politics knows that term limits, and the debate surrounding their merit, isn’t new. Term limits of some form date back to Ancient Greece and were included in the Articles of Confederation. They were excluded from the United States Constitution, but added for the President in 1951 with passage of the 22nd Amendment in the wake of FDR’s election to four terms. Proponents of term limits argue that they combat against corruption that can arise when officials acquire great power and influence that can come with decades of service. On the other hand, term limits can be detrimental to continuity, result in the premature departure of effective legislators and dissuade quality candidates from committing to serve.
This writer sees the merit of the arguments on both sides, although I tend to be more opposed to term limits than supportive, especially ones that are overly restrictive. At the end of the day, the voters have the ultimate authority to remove ineffective or corrupt officials at the ballot box. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens observed in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thorton, it is a “fundamental principle of our representative democracy … that the people should choose whom they please to govern them.”
If nothing else, it seems the concerns of both sides can be adequately addressed with term limits that are reasonable. Those set forth in Issue 3, and adopted by Arkansans in 2014, arguably strike that balance. That’s so even if the measure as it appeared on the ballot was somewhat less than clear in its impact.
Nevertheless, if the proponents of the “Arkansas Term Limits Amendment of 2016” obtain the roughly 85,000 signatures required, and withstand a likely legal challenge to the measure, Arkansas voters will have another stab at the issue this November.