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Arkansas Voters Approve Extended Term Limits

Arkansas voters approved a ballot measure that combined popular ethics reforms with an extension of term limits for state lawmakers.

Detail from "The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy" (1760) by Giovanni Domenico
Wikimedia Commons/ user:Sturm
A ballot measure aimed at tightening ethics laws and changing term limits in Arkansas bucked expectations and passed with 53 percent of the vote. The measure, officially called Issue 3, bans lobbyist gifts to state officials, prohibits direct corporate and union contributions to candidates and lengthens the time period before former lawmakers can become lobbyists (from one to two years).

Those anti-lobbying and campaign finance reforms appeared to be headed for defeat because they were linked to an unpopular provision that sought to extend term limits for state lawmakers. Polling by Talk Business Research and Hendrix College showed that most likely voters supported the ethics reforms, but opposed a package that also included term-limit extensions.

Arkansas term limits appeared untouchable. The 1992 ballot measure setting the term limits received a higher percentage of the vote than Bill Clinton, the state’s then-governor and a presidential candidate that year. Voters later rejected another ballot measure aimed at extending term limits by 40 points.

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 allows them to serve 16 years in the same office.

Even the main author of the ballot measure seemed convinced it would lose. “I thought I was making progress by getting these ethics reforms on the ballot,” said Rep. Warwick Sabin, a first-term Democrat, the day before the election. “I don’t think I had a full appreciation for how poisonous the term-limits provision would be. I've learned my lesson."

Sabin said the provisions dealing with lobbying and campaign contributions weren’t winning enough support from fellow lawmakers. By including changes to term limits, the package passed and went to voters. Critics called the term-limits provision a Trojan horse and rolled out a 10-foot wooden horse at campaign events, evocative of the disguise the Greeks used to infiltrate and sack Troy in Homer’s Odyssey.

One poll by Suffolk University/USA TODAY correctly predicted the election's outcome, estimating 56 percent of likely voters would support the ethics reform/term limits package.

"Everyone significant abandoned it after it was sent to the ballot, including me, for discomfort with the add-on provisions," wrote Max Brantley, a columnist and blogger for the Arkansas Times. "It had no organized support of any sort. Yet it passed."

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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