A legislative committee advanced a constitutional amendment changing the state’s legislative term limits law Tuesday (March 19), but not until after the sponsor removed judicial term limits after numerous judges objected to the provision.
The Senate State Agencies & Governmental Affairs Committee passed on a voice vote SJR 15 by Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, in an afternoon meeting.
The resolution would limit legislators elected on or after Jan. 1, 2021, to 12 years in the Legislature, with the ability to return after a four-year break. Two-year terms served as a result of apportionment would count in the total. Partial terms served after a special election would not be included.
Legislators first elected before that date would be limited to 16 years in the Legislature, with a four-year break. Two-year terms created by apportionment and partial terms because of special elections would not count in the total.
Legislators currently are limited to 16 years total followed by a lifetime ban, with some legislators serving longer because of apportionment.
Clark said removing the lifetime ban would enable a Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin who served as a young person to return to office when they are older. He said only 30 legislators out of 617 had returned to service after an enforced break in the states that have that arrangement – about 5%.
The amendment now goes to the full Senate and then must also pass the House. If so, it would be considered by voters in 2020.
When the day began, the amendment also would have limited the terms for Supreme Court justices, Court of Appeals judges, and circuit and district judges.
But several judges and others in the legal profession objected to that provision, saying it takes time to become a good judge, and that term limits would discourage attorneys from giving up their practice to run for a judicial position they would then have to leave.
Among those objecting were Circuit Judges John Fogleman, Robert Herzfeld and Susan Weaver, Washington County District Judge Clinton Casey Jones, and Randolph County District Judge John Throesch.
Clark said he was removing judicial term limits “because a great number of you have indicated that you’d like to do that. I had an amendment already the last time I was here to take judiciary out of (the amendment).”
Another earlier version would have reserved for the Legislature alone, and not the voters, the ability to propose term limit amendments. Clark had removed that provision.
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.
The proposal would 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.
Tom Steele, chairman of Arkansas Term Limits, told Talk Business & Politics Tuesday that Clark’s proposal is worse than the state’s current term limits law because it allows legislators to return to office after four years.
He said his group would continue to push its amendment, saying, “We have every intention of getting this thing on the ballot. … You can be assured that we learned something last time.”
Steele told legislators that he objected to both the amendment and its popular name, the Arkansas Term Limits Amendment, which would be the same as the one his group is proposing. Steele said the amendment appeared to piggyback off the goodwill his group’s effort has created and would confuse voters. He asked legislators to change the title of their amendment.
Clark said the Bureau of Legislative Research had written the title.
Fifteen states have legislative term limits, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The Arkansas Term Limits proposal would create the nation’s strictest limit.
Arkansas voters first enacted one of the nation’s toughest term limits laws in 1992 – three two-year terms in the House and two four-year terms in the Senate.
They voted in 2014 to lengthen the amount of time legislators could serve to 16 total years, and in some cases longer, as part of a wide-ranging “ethics” amendment.
The Legislature under the Arkansas Constitution can refer up to three amendments to the voters.
Earlier this session, the Legislature voted to send to the voters an amendment that would permanently extend the half-cent sales tax that funds the Connecting Arkansas Program, a wide-ranging highway construction effort. The tax was approved by 58 percent of the voters in 2012 and expires in 2023.