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BRENDA BLAGG: Term limits redux

Advocates for 10-year cap get measure on ballot

Here we go again, Arkansas.

The issue of term limits for state legislators is headed to the state general election ballot once more.

This will be the fourth term limits vote in Arkansas since 1992. If passed, the latest proposed amendment would make term limits for the Arkansas Legislature the strictest in the country -- 10 years max in either or both the state Senate or House of Representatives.

What's more, it comes in an environment in which a number of state lawmakers have been accused of corruption, suggesting voters might be more willing to reign in legislative power than to study the effect of such tight limits on the balance of power in government.

This is serious business and voters need to tune in what is being proposed. Barring a successful legal challenge, voters will decide the issue in November.

Secretary of State Mark Martin's office reported last week that backers of this newest proposal to limit lawmakers' time in office had successfully submitted more than enough valid signatures to qualify the issue for the Nov. 6 ballot.

Just shy of 94,000 of the more than 124,000 signatures submitted proved valid. Arkansas Term Limits, the group backing the proposal, needed but 84,859 registered voters to sign to access the ballot.

Backers of other initiatives fell short of the necessary number or have been given additional time to try to make the cut, but advocates for tighter term limits made the process look easy.

Of course, the folks pushing these new term limits have experience. At least some of them have been involved in the effort for decades, beginning with the 1992 push that first brought term limits to bear in Arkansas.

Previously, individuals could stay in the Arkansas Legislature as long as voters in a legislative district voted to put them there. Elections, held every two years for House members and every four years for Senate members, decided who stayed and who didn't.

The term limits imposed by Arkansas voters in 1992 came amid a nationwide push for term limits. The movement was aimed more at federal officeholders, but those were stripped out of the Arkansas proposal by litigation. What was left were state legislative term limits intended to allow House members to serve three terms (six years) and senators two terms (eight years).

It was more complicated than that because of decennial reapportionment and the required reduction of some senators' terms to two years, which didn't count against their totals.

Nevertheless, Arkansas lived with those limits for a dozen years as opponents continued to argue that the short terms left Arkansas with less experience in the Legislature and a shift of power to the executive branch of government and a heavier hand for bureaucrats and lobbyists.

There were repeated attempts to propose an alternative but the first to get to the ballot came in 2004, when voters soundly rejected an attempt to stretch term limits.

The proposal went down hard and opponents of the state's strict limits lived with them for another decade before the Legislature referred another term limits question to voters.

The new proposal came wrapped in controversy, buried in a 2014 amendment that state lawmakers crafted for ethics reform.

Anyone paying close attention knew the proposal also carried the term limits expansion, but it was easy enough to miss, given that the actual ballot title dedicated most of its 157 words to ethics reform. The term limits language was tacked on in the phrase "and establishing term limits for members of the General Assembly." The measure didn't explain that the state already had term limits and some complained the language was deceptive.

The actual legislation referring the issue spelled out that the number of years a lawmaker could serve would be expanded to 16 total, whether in either or both the House and Senate. Again, partial terms weren't to count toward the lifetime limit, so some lawmakers could serve longer.

Voters approved the measure, whether they fully understood it or not. Those are today's limits.

Advocates for stricter limits set out fairly quickly to remedy the situation and the result is this 2018 ballot proposal, which would take term limits to just 10 years max for any lawmaker.

But that's not all the 2018 amendment would do. It also would strip the Legislature of its authority to refer a term limits question to future voters.

That right would be reserved to the people, which means anyone wanting to alter term limits in the future would have to gather signatures and petition to get the question to the ballot.

Voters, if they approve, would cap legislative term limits at 10 years and effectively lock them into the state Constitution for who knows how long.

Commentary on 08/08/2018

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