Arkansas Senate adopts terms limits ballot proposal, continues ethics reform changes

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 341 views 

The Arkansas Senate on Tuesday (March 26) backed legislation to alter the state’s term limits law, and later followed that up by unanimously approving one of several ethics reform bills to clean up corruption at the State Capitol.

The long day at the Capitol also included a brief recess to ease the bottleneck of bills in the Joint Budget Committee where several members openly expressed concerns that a pending federal lawsuit will force the state to back off a work requirement for the expanded health care coverage known as Arkansas Works.

But the Senate action began earlier when Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, introduced Senate Joint Resolution 15, which would allow lawmakers to put a proposal on the 2020 election ballot to set Arkansas legislative term limits at 12 years with a few exceptions that allows incumbents to come back to the Capitol after a brief break.

Like the argument he made in the Senate State Agencies & Governmental Affairs Committee last week, Clark made the case that his legislation was “good government” and would give Arkansas voters a better choice if there are possible dueling term limit constitutional amendments on the 2020 ballot.

“In case there are two, this gives people who support good government something to campaign for, rather than appearing to be against term limits,” Clark said in his closing statement. “Lots of people, given a choice, will make a very sensible choice rather than just saying ‘I’m for term limits.’“

Under SJR 15, lawmakers elected on or after Jan. 1, 2021, can serve 12 years in the House or Senate with the ability to return after a four-year break. Two-year terms created by apportionment and partial terms because of special elections would not count in the total.

Legislators are now limited to 16 years total followed by a lifetime ban, with some legislators serving longer because of apportionment. Clark said only 30 legislators out of 617 had returned to service after an enforced break in the states that have that arrangement – about 5%.

Clark’s proposal comes as the group Arkansas Term Limits has filed a proposed constitutional amendment with stricter terms that would be considered by voters in 2020. That amendment, filed March 14, would impose a lifetime limit of 10 years in the Legislature – no more than three two-year terms in the House of Representatives or two four-year terms in the Senate. Service since Jan. 1, 1993, would be included in the calculations.

That proposal would prohibit the Legislature from proposing a term limits amendment in the future. It would also create the same limits as one proposed by Arkansas Term Limits last year that was struck from the ballot after a special master ruled that its petition lacked enough signatures and the Supreme Court agreed. If it had passed, up to 62 House members and 23 senators now would be in their final terms.

But none of those senators spoke against SJR 15. It was easily approved by a vote of 27-3. Senate President Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, and Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, voted against the measure. They were joined by Sen. Bruce Maloch, D-Magnolia. The bill now goes to the House State Agencies and Government Affairs Committee.

The Senate also overwhelmingly approved Senate Bill 258 by Sen. Will Bond, D-Little Rock, with a vote of 33-0 with two members not voting. Bond’s bill increases the penalty for using campaign or carryover funds for personal use in excess of $2,500 to a felony.

“We tried to simplify it, but the main point of the bill is that it raises the offenses to a felony level where in the past, they have all been misdemeanors,” he said.

Senate Bill 258 is one of half-dozen ethics bills in the legislative pipeline separate from the newly-created Select Senate Committee. That Senate panel was created in June after former Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, was indicted by a federal grand jury on 12 counts of wire fraud and falsifying tax returns.

Hutchinson resigned from the 35-member body last summer after charges were filed and has denied any wrongdoing. However, Hendren and House Speaker Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, and other House and Senate members rolled out the new ethics proposals on Feb. 4 that lawmakers hope to enact into law before the assembly ends.

Earlier in the session, the legislature approved SB 256 by Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, which would impact lawmakers who had to register as lobbyists as part of their full-time jobs or engaged in lobbying work in other states or at the federal level.

The other ethics proposals filed during the session also include a measure to prevent lawmakers from getting contributions from multiple PACs, and a so-called retirement “clawback” provision for lawmakers who commit felony crimes as elected officials. A final proposal would support a request by the state Ethics Commission to change appropriations for the upcoming fiscal year to include funds for two additional staff positions and a $186,000 increase in the agency’s operating budget.

Lawmakers from the Senate and House also approved several budget bills at a brief Joint Budget meeting held during a recess in Tuesday’s long day at the Capitol. One of the bills that now goes to the Senate includes appropriations for Arkansas Works, the state’s Medicaid expansion that requires able-bodied recipients to work or attempt to work in order to remain in the program.

However, Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Berryville and Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbriar, both questioned whether it was wise to approve the budget pending a ruling from a federal lawsuit challenging the program’s work requirement.

Two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg heard arguments from litigants in Arkansas and Kentucky where low-income Medicaid participates were require to either have a job or meet “community engagement” requirements to receive health insurance. Boasberg has said he hopes to issue a ruling on both cases by the end of this month, a point that Ballinger and Meeks said made them uneasy about approving the Arkansas Works budget.

“It makes it hard for me to vote for it, not knowing what we are going to run into,” said Ballinger during the 10-minute Joint Budget meeting late Tuesday afternoon.

In the 2015 and 2017 legislative sessions, Gov. Asa Hutchinson transformed the “private option” Medicaid expansion program started under Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe and GOP state lawmakers into Arkansas Works. The work requirement, which received a federal waiver late last year, led to conservative buy-in to continue the program in the 2017 session.

Unlike some states that have seen skyrocketing annual premium hikes, Arkansas’ health insurance markets have remained relatively stable and shown single-digit increases year-over-year thanks to the Medicaid expansion component of the Affordable Care Act, which planted several private insurance carriers in the marketplace.

Kelley Linck, chief legislative and intergovernmental affairs officer for the state Department of Human Services, told the legislative panel the state budget has set aside enough funds to cover the more than 18,000 people who have lost their health coverage for failing to comply with the requirements or failing to officially report their compliance. He said about 2,000 have since reapplied for coverage.

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