Term limits amendment could lead to 80% turnover in state legislature

by Steve Brawner (BRAWNERSTEVE@MAC.COM) 2,141 views 

If voters approve a proposed term limits amendment this November, up to 62 members of the Arkansas House of Representatives and 23 senators will be serving their last term after November as a result.

If other reasons for departure along with a filled vacancy are included, at least 80 of the 100 House seats would have different nameplates than they do today. The same would be true for at least 30 of the 35 Senate seats by 2023. Those numbers are based on data provided to Talk Business & Politics by Bill Stovall, former Arkansas Speaker of the House and current executive director of Arkansas Community Colleges.

“Term limits produces officials with limited understanding of their responsibilities of state government. It’s a $21 billion responsibility that falls to the legislature to understand, not just the budgetary necessities, but to also understand the intricacies of each agency’s mission for their constituents,” said Stovall.

He recalls that during his Speakership from 2005-2007 — when term limits was creating significant turnover — the House had an average of 1.4 years of experience, while the State Senate had more than 10 years.

This year’s proposed amendment would restore legislative term limits to two four-year terms in the Senate and three two-year terms in the House, the same as they were under an amendment approved by voters in 1992. Meanwhile, it would add a provision limiting legislators to 10 years of cumulative service in either chamber. Full years of a partial term would count as part of the 10 years. It would go into effect Jan. 1, 2019 and would not invalidate or cut short terms that began with an election prior to that date.

In the House, 79 members of the current 99-member body are serving in at least their second term. Twenty-eight are in their third term, and 16 are in their fourth term. On the other end of the Capitol, 10 senators in the current 34-member Senate are in their fourth term, 14 are in their third term, and four are in their second term. One House and one Senate seat are vacant.

Some officeholders will change for reasons other than term limits. Three senators are not seeking re-election, while two were defeated in primaries. In the House, Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, will not return because he is running for the 2nd Congressional District seat. Rep. Trevor Drown, R-Dover, did not seek re-election because he unsuccessfully campaigned for secretary of state. Five House members are running for the state Senate, while three are in mayoral races. Seven are not running for re-election.

Supporters of this year’s proposed amendment submitted 135,590 signatures to the secretary of state’s office July 6. The secretary of state must certify that 84,859 come from distinct registered voters in order for the measure to qualify. Supporters would have more time to collect signatures if they fall short of the total but have enough to qualify for a “cure period.”

Arkansas Term Limits has received $421,225 from the national group U.S. Term Limits, according to its monthly report filed with the Arkansas Ethics Commission July 17.

Arkansas has a recent history of enacting and changing term limits. In 1992, almost 60% of voters approved Amendment 73, which limited constitutional officers and state senators to two four-year terms and state House members to three two-year terms. It also limited congressional terms, but those were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton.

That amendment resulted in significant turnover in the Legislature when it began taking effect in 1998. That year, 49 of the 100 House members were forced out of office, and the total turnover was 56%, according to a 2005 paper by University of Arkansas at Little Rock political science professor Art English. In 2000, 13 of the 35 senators were term-limited. Before the amendment was passed, turnover averaged 18% from 1988 to 1996, according to English’s paper for the National Council of State Legislatures.

Tim Jacob, spokesperson for Arkansas Term Limits and statewide petition director of the 1992 effort, said the high turnover that would begin in 2021 would be a one-time event.

“We heard the sky was going to fall in ’92 when we did that, and then in ’98, there was gnashing of teeth from incumbents, but as you know, we lived through that period and I thought it worked out pretty well, and I think the voters of Arkansas thought it worked out pretty well because they’re still big proponents of term limits,” he said.

An effort to increase legislative terms failed in 2004 with more than 70% voting against, but in 2014 voters approved by 52%-48% a wide-ranging “ethics” amendment that, among other provisions, allowed legislators to serve a total of 16 years in either or both bodies. Legislators can actually serve longer, because not included are partial terms and two-year Senate terms served as a result of redistricting changes following the census.

The term limits amendment’s supporters say legislators hid the term limits extension inside that 22-page amendment, whose title said it would be “establishing” term limits. The term limits provision was on pages 16-17.

“What happened in 2014 was an outrage and a deception and a fraud to the voters. … I think everybody, even people that didn’t like term limits, were outraged at the behavior and how the Legislature, how low they would stoop,” Jacob said.

The amendment would reinstate a limit of three two-year terms for House members and two four-year terms for senators. Meanwhile, it would limit legislators to 10 years total, which was not part of the 1992 amendment. Jacob said the purpose of that provision was to bring legislative terms closer in line to the eight years allowed for constitutional officers. The amendment also would bar the General Assembly from proposing term limits amendments to the Arkansas Constitution. Tom Steele, chairman of Arkansas Term Limits, said that would prevent legislators from attempting to lengthen terms as they did in 2014.

“There’s no way we’re going to go out there and do this again and then have them do the same dishonest thing they did before,” he said.

The amendment would count service going back to Jan. 1, 1993, as part of its calculations. Steele said that language was in the original 1992 term limits measure.

It would mean that Sen. Will Bond, D-Little Rock, would not be able to run for re-election in 2021. He was elected to the Senate in 2017 but served three consecutive two-year terms in the House after first being elected in 2003.

Bond said he generally opposes term limits, but the current law “strikes a decent balance” to ensure legislators have enough experience to remain a co-equal branch with the executive and judicial branches and to hold their own with state agencies and lobbyists. He said with a six-year limit, part-time House members would spend a total of less than a year actually meeting in session before having to leave office.

“You always hear people say, ‘We want to run government like a business,’” he said. “All right, well, find a great business who changes out their accountants or their fiscal people every time they get essentially one year of experience under their belt.”

Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, said he understands why some people would want to shorten terms in light of the recent convictions and negative headlines of five former legislators related to corruption charges. But he said the amendment would weaken the Legislature in comparison to the executive and judicial branches and in comparison with state agencies. He said it would disadvantage legislators from outside central Arkansas, and the difference in allowable years would weaken the House in comparison to the Senate.

Stovall, the former Speaker, also recalled that term limits led to expenditures of additional resources to conduct longer, more detailed orientation. He cautioned that new members will rely on non-elected state employees and lobbyists to navigate the pitfalls of public service.

“More bills were filed as a result of term limits there again creating more staff and dependency on non-elected individuals,” Stovall added. “The Speaker’s office rose to new heights of influence. This came naturally, because new members easily followed the experience illustrated by achieving the Speakership and therefore seldom challenged the Speaker’s decisions or authority.”

As for the “sky not falling” and the Legislature working through the epic turnover in the first decade of the new century, Stovall contends the lack of experience has been detrimental to good government.

“Is that the best our citizens want from their state government – that we survived? I would hope we would want much more than survival. How about meeting challenges and persevering over those challenges to the benefit of our citizens?” he said.

Arkansas Term Limits’ Jacob said the amendment would provide a “shared responsibility in government” and lead to new faces to tackle new and old challenges.

“I just think rotation in office is important, it’s shared responsibility, and I think you get new people to participate in government,” he said.

Editor’s note: Talk Business & Politics’ Roby Brock contributed to this article.