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Legislative term limits revisited in Arkansas 

But the proposed adjustments are small.

When Arkansas voters adopted term limits for legislators in 1992, Republicans were badly outnumbered in both houses of the legislature, and Republican money fueled much of the term-limits movement in Arkansas and nationwide, although term-limit proponents always tried to pass the idea off as a nonpartisan reform. The Republican thinking was that elimination of long-term-incumbent Democrats would improve the chances of Republican candidates being elected to the legislature.

The strategy has worked, and because of it and other factors, including the nation's election of a Democratic president who is highly unpopular in Arkansas, Republicans in 2013 have a majority in each house of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. So there was speculation that Republican legislators might want to rethink term limits, making them less restrictive if not repealing them entirely, so that the Republicans could get some long-term, hard-to-beat incumbents of their own. The legislatures of two other states, Idaho and Utah, that adopted term limits about the same time as Arkansas, have since repealed their term-limit laws. As of January, 15 states had term limits for state legislators.

But Arkansas Republicans appear not to have changed their minds about term limits, or at least not to have the nerve to admit it. In the current legislative session, two proposed constitutional amendments dealing with term limits were introduced before the deadline for introductions. Both would make only relatively minor changes. One was introduced by a Republican, one by a Democrat. Either or both could be referred by the legislature to a vote of the people in November 2014. Both are now in the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Amendment 73 of the Arkansas Constitution established that no member of the Arkansas House of Representatives can serve more than three two-year terms, and no member of the Senate can serve more than two four-year terms. A member who's used up his eligibility in one house can run for the other house, so that 14 is the maximum number of years a legislator can serve, in nearly all cases. (Because senators must draw for two- or four-year terms after each federal census, it's possible that a legislator could serve 16 years.) Amendment 73 originally established term limits for members of the Arkansas congressional delegation too, but that provision was invalidated by the federal courts, which said that the U.S. Constitution, not state legislatures, made the rules for congressional service.

HJR 1002 by Rep. Denny Altes (R-Fort Smith) provides that no legislator can serve longer than 14 years, the current limit in most cases, but it removes the limits on the number of terms in each house. A legislator could serve all 14 years in the House, all 14 in the Senate, or a mix of the two. Altes apparently believes there's some merit in a having a degree of continuity. He didn't return calls from the Times.

HJR 1009 is a comprehensive reform amendment setting new ethical standards for legislators and other elected officials — limiting gifts to officials, restricting political contributions by corporations, establishing new procedures for setting the salaries of legislators and other officials. It includes a provision that no legislator can serve more than 16 years, and, like Altes' proposal, it removes the limits on terms in each house, so that a member could serve all 16 years in one house. Rep. Warwick Sabin (D-Little Rock) is the lead sponsor of HJR 1009. Sabin is admittedly more interested in the reform elements of HJR 1009 than in tinkering with term limits, but he said the resolution is a compromise measure, and he hoped the inclusion of term limits would help win support for it from legislators.

There are still those, like Gov. Mike Beebe and the Arkansas Times editorial page, who believe that legislative term limits should be repealed entirely, the people allowed to elect whoever they want for as long as they want, and that the legislature functions better when it includes long-termers who've gained expertise in certain areas. But Republican officials and other term-limits proponents did a good selling job in the '90s, and government is, if anything, even more unpopular now than it was then. Making even a minor change in term limits is likely to be a hard sell.

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