Are the most rigid legislative term limits in the country about to destabilize the Arkansas General Assembly and disrupt the balance of power across all of state government? Based on the 135,590 petition signatures advocates turned in to the secretary of state’s office for review in early July, in addition to previous votes of the Arkansas electorate and public sentiment about the performance of the legislature in recent years, the apparent answer is yes. To be clear, funny things sometimes happen to even publicly popular initiatives on their path to the ballot in Arkansas, but observers of state government are quickly becoming aware that a major earthquake is likely to come to the legislative branch.
By placing a lifetime limit of 10 years on individuals serving in the General Assembly (with additional limits of three terms in the House or two terms in the Senate), the Arkansas Term Limits Amendment would be the most severe term limits in the country, taking that title from Oklahoma and California, which limit their legislators to 12 years of total service. (Nebraska limits its legislators to eight years, but those lawmakers can return after taking a hiatus.) This “term limits on steroids” would go well beyond the original Arkansas term limits, also designed by U.S. Term Limits, the group that is the key advocate and funder of this proposed initiative.
Why the apparent energy for doubling down on term limits in Arkansas in 2018? Arkansans’ historic populist sentiment against governmental power is one element, of course. But, there is additional public backlash against the legislature, caused by greed-based, self-inflicted wounds of two types. First is the pecuniary greediness seen on the front page of state papers for months as legislator after legislator has been caught up in a web of public corruption scandals. Second are a series of power grabs by the legislature as it has defied separation of powers principles in moving into the lanes of the executive and (as proposed in Issue 1 on the state ballot this year) the judicial branches of state government. Added to these power grabs is the loosening of term limits buried in a 2014 “ethics” amendment that now allows legislators to serve a total of 16 years in either chamber or a combination of the two.
Even some who oppose term limits on principle will be hard-pressed not to give the legislature a proverbial middle finger by casting a vote for this term limits amendment if given the opportunity to do so.
Assuming it does pass, the new term limits will result in a quick overhaul of House and Senate personnel. Talk Business & Politics’ Steve Brawner analyzed data provided by former Speaker Bill Stovall, now a lobbyist for the state’s community’s colleges, that are stunning. Because the amendment is retroactive (unlike the 1992 amendment), the constitutional amendment’s passage in 2018 would mean that healthy majorities of legislators in both houses would suddenly be in their last term in that body and by 2023 almost all legislative experience would disappear.
The impact of such an immediate turnover in membership would be monstrous for the knowledge of public policy and on institutional memory in state government. From the state budget to education policy to public employee retirement programs, knowledge of the policymaking process and of the key questions that must be asked for good legislating would disappear in a flash. Proficiency in legislative rules would also disappear from the elected ranks.
Yes, a few more women (some of them spouses of term-limited members, based on past experience) will gain access to political power in the short run, but — based on a bevy of political science literature on the impact of term limits — other changes in the composition of legislative bodies are unlikely to occur.
The winners under this likely scenario:
• The executive branch, particularly if a veteran governor remains in place during the transition period, who would maintain institutional memory;
• the small permanent staff in the General Assembly whom newbies would rely upon for day-to-day survival;
• the best (often meaning well-heeled) lobbyists who can provide knowledge on arcane subjects;
• the handful of individual legislators savvy and lucky enough to rise to leadership roles in each chamber and gain nearly absolute power to shape the agenda; and
• political consultants who’d be depended upon by the bevy of new legislative candidates and by legislators with ambition for higher office.
Arkansas voters may be about to make huge decisions about the shape of state government for a generation.