Term limits probably will work out

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

For term limits supporters unhappy about what happened in November, it probably will work out for the best in the long run. Some reforms occurred that likely wouldn’t have happened otherwise, and voters probably will get a chance at a do-over in 2016.

Amendment 3 was a 22-page resolution with many provisions that was shrunk to a single paragraph for the ballot. It prohibits state candidates from accepting campaign contributions from corporations and unions. It prohibits legislators and constitutional officers from accepting gifts from lobbyists, which has already significantly changed the culture at the Capitol. It also increases from one year to two the amount of time that legislators must wait to register as a lobbyist after they leave office – the goal being to reduce the incentive for them to pass laws that would get them hired and help their future employers.

It also created a citizens commission to set salaries for legislators, constitutional officers and judges. In the past, legislators have set their own salaries, a conflict of interest that ironically has kept salaries low because of the awkwardness of it all. Commission members have been appointed by the governor, the leaders of the House and Senate, and the Supreme Court’s chief justice. In other words, they’ve appointed their own salary deciders. The result is that pay hikes probably are coming.

Finally, the amendment extends term limits from the current six years in the House and eight years in the Senate to 16 years total.

Actually, they could serve longer than that. Pages 16 and 17 of the resolution state that partial terms don’t count and that members who reach their 16th year in the middle of their term can finish it out.

The language voters saw on the ballot said the measure was “establishing” term limits. Polled shortly before the election by Talk Business and Hendrix College, 62 percent of respondents said they opposed the measure, while only 23 percent supported it. However, unlike the ballot title, the poll question spelled out that the measure would “extend term limits … to 16 years.”

Term limits supporters fought Amendment 3 before the election and will soon open up a new front. Bob Porto, co-chair of Arkansas Term Limits, said in an interview that organizers will meet to determine next steps, including what the 2016 proposal will look like. A ballot initiative will be created, and signatures will be gathered. Two years from now, voters should have the chance to vote on a simple term limits measure.
Nick Tomboulides, executive director of U.S. Term Limits, which spent $400,000 in ads opposing the measure, said it’s too early to know how big of an investment his group will make in 2016, but it will support the effort.

Unless there’s a problem with the ballot title – or unless a judge decides there’s a problem – that effort will pass, and Arkansas probably will return to having some of the strictest term limits laws in the nation. In the end, it probably will work out.

Amendment 3’s sponsors say the amendment included the term limits provision as part of a compromise. It was needed to gain enough legislative support to get the ethics provisions on the ballot. Many legislators believe that six years in the House just isn’t long enough.

I’m not one who says all elected officials are crooks. At the State Capitol, most legislators seem to act mostly ethically most of the time, which is about like most of us.

But a bit of a fast one was pulled this time, and it shouldn’t have happened. Legislators should not have folded all of these provisions into one ballot initiative and should have been clearer about what “establishing” term limits meant. The attorney general should have disapproved the ballot title. The amendment shouldn’t have survived a court challenge. Voters should have been aware of its provisions – unless, of course, they actually were.

And I should have written about it before the election, not afterwards. Sorry about that.

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