Why Some Say Arkansas' Ethics Reform Is a Trojan Horse
A November ballot measure would limit the influence of lobbyists and corporations but also add time and flexibility to term limits.
Arkansas voters will have to decide whether to accept a tradeoff in November: Are they willing to grant state lawmakers more time in elected office in exchange for new limits on the political influence of lobbyists and corporations?
The ballot measure, Issue 3, would ban lobbyist gifts to state officials, ban direct corporate contributions to candidates and lengthen the time period before former lawmakers can become lobbyists. But those anti-lobbying and campaign finance reforms have received little attention in the campaign, mostly because another provision would extend term limits for state lawmakers.
“It’s all a cover for getting rid of term limits,” said Tim Jacob, a co-chairman of Arkansas Term Limits, a ballot committee that opposes the measure. “That’s the Trojan horse.”
At campaign events, Jacob’s committee has trotted out a 10-foot wooden horse, evocative of the disguise the Greeks used to infiltrate and sack Troy in Homer’s The Odyssey.*
Under the current state constitution, state lawmakers typically serve no more than six years in the house and eight years in the senate. The ballot measure would allow them to serve 16 years in the same office.
Due to an eccentricity in Arkansas election law, about half of state senators also serve special two-year terms after each decennial census and redistricting process, which don't count toward their term limits. Lawmakers who win election in both chambers could serve as many as 16 years under current law and 18 years if the measure passes in November. In the rare circumstance where a lawmaker serves several truncated two-year terms, the maximum term could be even higher, reaching 18 years under current law and 22 years under the ballot measure.**
Because the measure would make several changes at once, it has a long, complicated ballot title and the bill itself is 22 pages, with the term-limits portion tucked away on the 16th page. The length and complexity of the measure has invited speculation that its authors intended to obfuscate its impact on term limits.
The ballot measure began as three separate bills by state Rep. Warwick Sabin, a Democrat whose 2012 campaign focused on trying to limit the influence of corporations and lobbyists in Little Rock. He introduced a bill for each of his intended reforms: a ban on lobbying gifts, a ban on corporate political contributions and an extension of the cooling off period before a retired lawmaker can lobby. None of them received a committee hearing.
“I thought it would be easier to tackle those issues one-by-one rather than lump them together,” Sabin said. “But I wasn’t able to get much traction with my colleagues on any of them.”
Sen. Jon Woods, a Republican, agreed to join Sabin as a co-sponsor, so long as the bill also created an independent citizens commission to determine salaries for state elected officials.
The idea of extending term limits had several powerful backers, including House Speaker Davy Carter, the state Chamber of Commerce and the state Farm Bureau. Carter was already an outspoken critic of the term limits, arguing that they guarantee legislators do not have enough time to develop policy expertise and build relationships in the capitol. (When Carter became speaker last year, about 40 percent of state lawmakers were freshmen.)
"Term limits are not working," Carter said at the Clinton School of Public Service in January of last year. "Right about the time you get ready to leave, you start understanding how the world goes around."
By adding term limits, the ethics package stood a better chance of passing the legislature. The ethics provisions, in turn, gave the term-limit changes a better chance of passing by popular vote. A ballot measure focused solely on extending term limits lost by a 40-point margin in a 2004 state election. By contrast, polling of reforms dealing with lobbyists and campaign contributions showed 69 percent support from likely voters in 2012.
Sabin’s ethics reforms went from stalled in committee to passing the house 76-3 and the senate 23-4. But the package now seems in jeopardy.
A poll in April that asked about the combined ballot measure showed a steep drop in support, down to 25 percent. In the spring primaries, GOP incumbents fielded criticism that they had acted in their own self interest by trying to loosen term limits. That’s an especially potent criticism in Arkansas, where the 1992 ballot measure setting today’s term limits received a higher percentage of the vote than Bill Clinton, the state’s then-governor and a presidential candidate that year.
The state GOP passed a resolution in July to oppose the November measure, despite the fact that a Republican co-sponsored the proposal and a legislature controlled by Republicans placed it on the ballot.
Though Sabin was a primary sponsor of the bill, he said he is neutral on the term-limits provision, referring to it as a “necessary compromise” and “an option of last resort.” If voters want the limits to lobbying and campaign contributions, he said, “you can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The net result will be good for transparency and accountability in our state government.”
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Trojan horse was from Homer's The Illiad.
**An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the ballot measure would limit terms to 16 years. In fact, some lawmakers could serve between 18 years to 22 years.