Fed Up by Corruption, Arkansas Voters Could Revisit Term Limits

Four years ago, lawmakers snuck a term-limits extension onto the ballot. Now, thanks to recent statehouse scandals, voters may roll that back.
by | September 25, 2018
Arkansas Senator Jeremy Hutchinson
In August, Arkansas Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson resigned in the face of a federal indictment. He has pleaded not guilty to wire and fraud charges. (AP/Danny Johnston)

Last Updated Sept. 26 at 10:10 a.m. ET

SPEED READ:

  • Arkansas voters could decide in November whether to bring back stricter term limits for the legislature.
  • In 2014, lawmakers snuck a term-limit extension onto the ballot, which passed.
  • Since then, several lawmakers have been convicted on corruption charges.
  • The new rules would limit House members to six years and Senate members to eight.
 

Legislative term limits have created a host of problems since they first won favor at the state level in the 1990s. They erase institutional memory, leaving newbie lawmakers to stumble their way through complicated issues like revising the tax code and managing pensions. Inevitably, that puts more power in the hands of the executive branch. It also gives added clout to lobbyists -- a consequence no one intended.

But if there's a legislature that has earned itself term limits, it's the one in Arkansas.

Term limits are nothing new there. Arkansas voters approved term limits as strict as any in the nation in 1992. House members were limited to six years' service, senators to eight. Politicians who had been around for decades and ran the place were ushered out, with the subsequent constant turnover weakening a legislature that wasn’t very strong to begin with.

Four years ago, Arkansas legislators found a way to extend their careers. There was an ethics measure going on the ballot to put limits on lobbyists and their campaign contributions. But lawmakers also inserted a major extension of term limits, allowing members to serve up to 16 years in either chamber. What's more, they included a mechanism to permit salary increases for themselves.

The ballot measure passed. Supporters of term limits tried to repeal it back in 2016. They failed, but it may have turned out they were lucky in having to wait until this year's ballot to try again.

Legislators have been busy proving the argument that they can't be trusted, with a series of bribery scandals rocking the capitol. Five former legislators have been convicted or pleaded guilty over the past year -- so many that there are mordant jokes about the Arkansas Senate not having enough members for a quorum.

"There's been a constant drumbeat here in Arkansas for the last year," says Ark Monroe, a longtime Little Rock lobbyist. "They see this and it's just like, 'We've got to get rid of all these people.'"

In August, state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson -- a nephew of Gov. Asa Hutchinson -- resigned in the face of a federal indictment. He has pleaded not guilty to wire and fraud charges. Among those who have been convicted is former Sen. Jon Woods. In September, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison on fraud and money laundering charges. It was Woods' idea to sneak the term-limits extension onto the 2014 ballot.

"We cannot allow the legislature to trick voters," says Tim Jacob, a spokesman for the term-limits campaign. "Regardless of how you feel about term limits, this was a piece of legislation sponsored by a convicted felon."

Ongoing trials have offered voters regular reminders of why they don't like politicians. They've also helped make passage of stricter term limits -- going back to the old formula of six years in the House and eight in the Senate -- appear a certainty this year.

That is, if the proposal gets voted on. A special master on Tuesday announced that the secretary of state's office had mistakenly counted more than 14,000 signatures toward the measure's total. The state Supreme Court will determine whether the question should be removed from the ballot.

If they are voted on, the new lifetime limits would be retroactive, meaning large majorities of the legislators reelected this month would suddenly find themselves serving their final terms. Just five senators would be eligible to run again, out of 35, along with only 20 of the 100 House members.

"There's no telling what bills will be introduced in this next legislative session," says Monroe, "because nobody has anything to lose by putting things in."

For a summary of November's most important ballot measures, click here.