Arkansas is one of six states with lifetime term limits on state lawmakers, but will no longer have them if voters approve Issue 2 on the Nov. 3 ballot.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the campaigns for and against Issue 2 have been low-key with proponents and opponents granting interviews and posting their talking points on social media.
"If there is any campaign behind it, I don't know about it," said Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, who, in the 2019 regular session, proposed the resolution containing the proposed constitutional amendment that's now Issue 2.
"We don't have a real robust campaign," said Tom Steele, chairman of the Arkansas Term Limits committee that opposes Issue 2. He said he has been hauling a 10-foot-tall carved wooden horse across the state in an attempt to drum up opposition.
Steele has attempted to go through the courts to stop the proposal.
The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a lower court ruling dismissing Steele's lawsuit aimed at removing from the ballot Issue 2 and Issue 3, another proposed constitutional amendment that would make it more difficult to qualify proposed measures for the ballot.
Arkansas is one of 15 states that limit the number of years or terms that people can serve in the state Legislature. The state has the highest number of years that people can serve -- up to 16 -- according to the University of Arkansas System Agriculture Division's Public Policy Center. (The 16-year limit doesn't include the two-year terms that some senators serve as a result of the once-a-decade redistricting of legislative boundaries.)
Besides Arkansas, the five other states with lifetime term limits are California, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada and Oklahoma, the Public Policy Center said in its summary on Issue 2.
Nine states with term limits allow former legislators to run again after a break in service: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota, the Public Policy Center said.
For example, Colorado, allows former legislators to run after a four-year break in service and they would be eligible to serve the full term limit again.
In 1992, Arkansas voters approved the state's first, and stricter, term limits. Amendment 73 to the Arkansas Constitution set term limits for state lawmakers as well as constitutional officers such as governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
Amendment 73 limited state senators to two four-year terms and state representatives to three two-year terms. Beyond that limit, some senators were able to serve extra two-year terms because of once-a-decade redistricting.
TERM LIMITS CHANGED
In 2014, voters approved Amendment 94 to the constitution to loosen the term limits and cap the total number of years state lawmakers can serve at 16 years, with senators able to serve longer because of adjustments for redistricting.
Amendment 94, which was pitched by lawmakers, had other changes, too. It shifted the authority for setting salaries for state elected officials from the Legislature to a citizens salary commission; prohibited corporate and union campaign contributions to candidates; and barred lobbyists from providing certain gifts, such as meals and drinks in one-on-one meetings, to lawmakers.
Issue 2, which would be the third adjustments in legislative term limits, was referred to voters by lawmakers meeting in the 2019 regular session. Clark and Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, sponsored the proposal.
The proposal, which would become effective Jan. 1, would allow current lawmakers and any legislator elected Nov. 3 to serve under Amendment 94's term limits, with the difference that once they hit the limit, they would be eligible to hold office again after four years.
Issue 2 would prohibit lawmakers elected after Jan. 1 from serving more than 12 years in a row. However, those lawmakers, once they have served 12 years consecutively, would be able to serve again after taking a four-year break. The 12 years would include two-year Senate terms resulting from the once-a-decade restricting process.
The proposal is supported by groups such as the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and Arkansas Farm Bureau and opposed by term-limits advocates such as Steele.
Clark said he proposed Issue 2 "because I wanted to do it right and I think it is extremely good law. It sets term limits the way it ought to be once and for all."
The Lonsdale lawmaker, who has served in the Senate since 2013, said he doesn't plan to take advantage of Issue 2, if voters adopt it. That is, to serve the rest of the time allowed under Amendment 94, take four years off and then run again.
"There have been very few promises I have made in my life," he said. "I didn't even promise not to raise taxes, although I didn't raise taxes. I had a lot of pressure on me to sign promises. I won't be coming back. It is not for me. It is not for anybody. It is just to get the law right."
Allowing lawmakers to serve 12 consecutive years before taking four years off "makes sense," Clark said.
"It gives you time to get on your feet. I think it takes you four years if you are good to get on your feet and get going. I think it takes some longer," he said. "Of course, that's 12 years if you are reelected.
"I think the fact that the two-year Senate terms didn't count was always a loophole that didn't belong there, so I wanted to fix that because you add that to the term limits we have and senators can now serve 20 years," Clark said.
He said younger lawmakers in their 20s and 30s should be able to run for the Legislature later in their lives if they want.
Forgoing lifetime term limits is likely the most controversial part of Issue 2, Clark said.
"I insisted on it, so people can send back the person they want if they really want them," he said.
Based on his research, Clark said an average of only about 4.9% of lawmakers in states that allow former lawmakers to return after required breaks have done so, so "that relates to five in the House and two in the Senate."
The state House has 100 members; the Senate has 35.
"When people have been gone four years, you can't drag them back," he said. "You have those die-hards that want to serve forever, but the rest, when they have been gone, you say, 'God Bless you all. I did it. I'm glad I did it. It was a great experience. But no, I'll never come back.'"
Steele said voters should cast their ballots against Issue 2 because "this is not term limits.
"Voters already have proven that they don't want these guys here forever," he said. "These guys have not been willing to accept the will of the people. ...
"The truth is, they want to be career politicians. They want to stay there. I am just saying they gut these term limits [because] they want to stay there. They are not interested in good government. I don't care what they say."
Steele said that under Issue 2, future lawmakers could serve 10 years and take two years off, and then serve 10 years and then take off two years, and then serve another 10 more years, to serve 30 of 34 years.
In Steele's view, Issue 2 is an echo of the campaign for Amendment 94.
"They are trying to gut term limits," Steele said. "We think this is another Trojan horse. They are trying to sneak this past people without telling them what they are trying to do."
Steele filed a proposed constitutional amendment in March 2019 that would limit representatives to three two-year terms and senators to two four-year terms and would limit any terms that would cause a lawmaker to exceed 10 years in office.
But he said proponents never collected signatures for that proposal.
"We were unable to get the financial backing. We just didn't think we could make it happen with volunteers," Steele said. "After our 2018 experience, I could see we probably were not going to make that happen with volunteers."
In a 4-3 ruling in October 2019, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck from the ballot a similar proposal from the Arkansas Term Limits committee. The high court concluded that a special master was correct in his findings that there were insufficient valid signatures collected.
Kenny Hall, executive vice president of the state Chamber of Commerce, said, "We support issue two because it gives the state or the Legislature the opportunity to have more experienced members.
"It is a fair approach to allow members that want to come back the opportunity, although the expectation is very few will do so," he said.
"[I]t is our view that it makes good sense to allow knowledgeable reputable legislators to come back and serve again at some point, or as the Amendment proposes, to run again after a 4 year absence, having served the 12 year maximum term in either the House or Senate," said Stanley Hill, vice president of public affairs and government relations at the Arkansas Farm Bureau.
Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Friday in a written statement, "I am still studying Issue 2 and undecided at the moment."
Issue 2 wouldn't change the limits of two four-year terms for the state's constitutional officers, who are the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, land commissioner, auditor and treasurer.
Editor's note: A report on Issue 1 will be in Tuesday's edition.