The OPINION of TOM STEELE chairman of Arkansas Term Limits Ballot Question Committee.
Published in THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | June 24, 2019
A 1992 citizen-referred constitutional amendment established legislative term limits in Arkansas for the first time. Winning in 70 of the state’s 75 counties, the proposed constitutional amendment passed with 60 percent of the vote.
It limited state representatives to three two-year terms (six years), and state senators to two four-year terms (eight years). Legislators could serve full terms in each house. It did not count the two-year Senate terms caused by reapportionment, so some senators could serve 10 years, and a few 12 years.
In 2004, legislators ignored the will of the people and placed a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot, which extended term limits for both representatives and senators to 12 years (not counting two-year Senate terms caused by reapportionment). Despite a well-financed promotional campaign funded by the Arkansas Farm Bureau and others, this proposal suffered a historic defeat in the 2004 general election when 70 percent of voters said no to the Legislature.
Over 700,000 voters said no. All 75 Arkansas counties said no.
In 2014, still chafing under the 1992 term limits, legislators placed Issue 3 (the so-called “Arkansas Elected Officials Ethics, Transparency and Financial Reform Amendment,” commonly referred to as the Ethics Amendment) on the 2014 ballot. Using a ballot title that is now widely considered a brazen fraud perpetrated on the people by legislators, voters were essentially tricked into gutting the same term limits they had strongly supported in 2004. According to Ballotpedia, only seven of the 135 members of the Arkansas Legislature voted against referring this Trojan horse to the voters.
Despite a public awareness campaign by the volunteers of Arkansas Term Limits that featured a large wooden “Trojan” horse at public events across the state, voters were largely unaware that the “Ethics Amendment” would gut term limits for legislators. The carefully crafted deceptive ballot title did its job. Voters thought they were voting for ethics reform for politicians. Issue 3 narrowly passed in November 2014 with 52 percent of the vote. It changed term limits for state representatives from six years to 16. State senators can now serve up to 22 years.
Of the states with legislative term limits, Arkansas sits alone at the top in terms of how many consecutive years a senator or representative can serve in the same office. Written by politicians for politicians, Arkansas now has the weakest term limits in the nation.
After Issue 3 passed, hundreds of outraged citizens from across Arkansas formed Arkansas Term Limits, a Ballot Question Committee (BQC) registered with the Arkansas Ethics Commission to sponsor a term-limit amendment that would restore the 1992 terms. This effort collected over 50,000 voter signatures but fell short of the 84,000-plus needed to qualify for the 2016 ballot.
In 2018 Arkansas Term Limits again sponsored a citizen’s initiative designed to restore the six- and eight-year limits approved by Arkansas voters in 1992. Unlike the 1992 amendment, it counted two-year Senate terms caused by reapportionment and set a 10-year cap on total service in the Legislature. Over 120,000 voter signatures were collected, far more the 84,859 needed to qualify for the 2018 ballot. The Arkansas secretary of state verified 93,998 signatures and certified the measure for the 2018 ballot.
Randy Zook, president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, funded by Arkansas Farm Bureau, Nabholz Construction, the state chamber and others, challenged the initiative petition. The cumulative administrative stumbling blocks created by the Legislature, with an assist from the Arkansas Supreme Court, were successful in derailing the initiative. In a narrow 4-3 ruling the court ruled for Zook, striking 9,926 voter signatures and disqualifying the Arkansas Term Limits Amendment from the ballot. The signatures of 9,447 registered voters were disqualified due to administrative hurdles enacted by the Legislature.
Even though state senators can now serve up to 22 years, the politician’s idea of good term limits, it apparently isn’t enough for Sen. Alan Clark.
Clark sponsored and the Legislature passed SJR15, a new term-limits proposed amendment that removes lifetime limits on how long a legislator may serve. It will be on the 2020 statewide general election ballot. Under the proposal, legislators first elected after 2020 can serve as many 12-year stints as they like, interrupted by four-year breaks. Current legislators get up to 22 years before they take their first four-year break.
As a poke in the eye to the citizens group, Clark and his allies have co-opted their popular name “The Arkansas Term Limits Amendment,” perhaps trying to confuse voters into thinking theirs is the citizens’ proposal. I suggested the legislators call theirs the Lifetime Politician Amendment.
Arkansas Term Limits will seek volunteers and sponsor a real term-limits amendment for the 2020 ballot, and yes, we will change our popular name to The Arkansas Citizen’s Term Limits Amendment.