Considering term limits

by Robert Coon (coon@impactmanagement.com) 383 views 

According to a recent article by Steve Brawner in this publication, if cleared for the November 6th ballot and passed by the voters, the proposed amendment to the Arkansas constitution to impose stricter term limits would result in an estimated 80% of members of the Arkansas General Assembly serving their final term in 2019. Most people I talk to think passage of the term limits amendment is all but a formality at this point.

Proponents of the amendment argue that voters were duped in 2014 by the legislatively referred “Ethics Amendment”, going so far as to call it “dishonest” and “a manifest fraud”. To be fair, the Ethics Amendment of 2014 did provide some notable reforms, including the prohibition on corporate political contributions, significantly more stringent restrictions on permissible lobbying expenditures, and a 2-year cooling off period for legislators seeking to become lobbyists. Yet while the 2014 amendment was also purported to establish term limits, subtly implying that we had none, in reality it effectively loosened the term limits that were in effect at the time.

And while I disagree with the idea that the Ethics Amendment of 2014 had no positive policy attributes, the truth is that the forthcoming campaign to impose tighter term limits will be a lot less about what constitutes sound public policy, and far more about playing on voter emotion. That’s because the ace in the hole for proponents of stricter term limits and the trump card to be played with voters, is that the Ethics Amendment of 2014 was authored and championed by former State Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, who was recently found guilty on 15 of 17 criminal counts related to public corruption during his time in the legislature.

This ongoing investigation into criminal activity that netted the Woods conviction, as well as multiple other former legislators and lobbyists, will most assuredly be the driving message behind the term limits amendment, and one that I anticipate the opponents of the proposed tort reform amendment (Issue 1) to also carry. For what better sales pitch to support tighter term limits than government corruption? From an emotional standpoint, there probably isn’t one.

But in practicality, term limits simply aren’t a panacea for eliminating corruption in government. Would a shorter length of public service provide less time or opportunity for malfeasance? Sure. But is there is no causal relationship between length of service and increased corruption. As evidence, tighter term limits would not have prevented the actions of several of the former legislators convicted in recent months including Jon Woods, Eddie Cooper, and Micah Neal, as their criminal activities occurred at points in their careers earlier than what the proposed 10-year limit would have allowed.

Term limit supporters also demonize the influence of lobbyists, arguing that special interest groups thrive when terms are longer, enabling them to take advantage of long held relationships. As a lobbyist myself, I agree that relationships are important to effective lobbying, yet the alternative would result in a system of government with more frequent turnover, giving lobbyists more institutional and policy knowledge than the members of the legislature themselves. Therefore, I think it’s a stretch to suggest that term limits will reduce lobbying influence. Lobbyists have a role in the process, and stricter term limits won’t eliminate that.

So, what is the real choice voters will have if this proposal stays on the ballot? It comes down to public service, trust, and what constitutes good government. On one hand, as stated earlier, stricter term limits will result in a near-house cleaning moment at the legislature at a time when public trust is diminished, and give opportunity for new voices and new ideas at the capitol. But on the flip side, that house cleaning will leave the cupboard bare, and make rebuilding institutional knowledge within the body a continual challenge, for it’s not unusual for the learning curve to extend into the 3rd or 4th year of legislative service. That doesn’t sound like good government to me.

So, on November 6th will voters look beyond the emotional messages of public corruption and lobbying influence and look at the true policy choice being put before them? I’m doubtful that they will. But if they do, we might find that passage of this amendment isn’t such a foregone conclusion after all.
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Editor’s note: Robert Coon is a partner with Impact Management Group, a government relations and communications firm that works with GOP and independent candidates. Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author.

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