When Arkansas voters approved a referendum instituting term limits for state elected offices in 1992, the measure's proponents predicted big changes for the legislature. The forced turnover would give more people an opportunity to run for office. This would lead to increased diversity among the representatives, as well as less partisanship, because individual seats could not be controlled by Democrats or Republicans.
Twelve years later, opinions remain mixed on the effects of term limits. The legislature is still predominantly the domain of white males. However, there is one inarguable phenomenon that can be ascribed to term limits: legislators are getting younger.
Currently there are 18 House and Senate incumbents age 40 or younger due to return for the 2005 legislative session, because they are unopposed in their re-election bids or do not have to run again this year. A 19th incumbent, Rep. Denny Sumpter of West Memphis, is unique in actually having to face an opponent in the general election.
This group of young state legislators is a major factor in Arkansas having the 11th-youngest state legislature in the nation, according to a 2002 study conducted by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
"We have some early indications that average age [of state legislators] is going down in term limits states like Arkansas," said Tim Storey, a NCSL senior fellow who directed the study. "Some scholars have maintained that one of the main effects of term limits would be younger state legislatures."
Clearly the trend toward more youthful legislatures has nothing to do with population demographics. The state legislature with the youngest average age is Florida, whose overall population has the second-highest median age in the U.S., but which passed term limits in 1992. Arkansas's median age also ranks among the nation's highest.
When the next legislative session begins in January, our representatives will be even younger. Twelve House candidates are age 40 or younger, and two are running unopposed.
"I'm surprised there are so many young people running for office, and that there are so many already serving," said Art English, a UALR political science professor. "I have to say that term limits have had an age impact."
The effects of term limits are also underscored by the young politicians themselves. Many of them had the chance to run only because a longtime office-holder was finally forced to step aside.
"Term limits are creating a new generation," said Lindsley Smith, a 40-year-old Democrat running unopposed for a Fayetteville House seat. Interestingly, she is married to Steve Smith, a University of Arkansas communications professor who was the youngest state legislator in Arkansas history when he was elected at age 21 in 1970.
Robert Thompson of Paragould, 32, who also is unopposed in his first political campaign for a House seat, says he has "mixed feelings" about term limits.
"On the one hand, they have created an inexperienced legislature," Thompson commented. "At the same time, a new young group of incoming legislators are the beneficiaries of term limits."
It is unclear whether the younger perspectives will lead to changes in policy emphasis or governing style. English says that newer legislators in states with term limits tend to introduce more bills, because they know that they have a limited amount of time to accomplish their goals. However, he has not studied the content of those bills.
Many of the younger legislative candidates in Arkansas seem to be interested in education, and not only because of the recent developments in the Lake View case.
"Education is the biggest issue for me," said Greg Jones, a 33-year-old Republican running for a Texarkana House seat against Steve Harrelson, a 30-year-old Democrat. "I have a 2- and 5-year-old, so what we decide directly affects me in the near future." In that sense, Jones thinks that age is a factor mainly because he and his colleagues "will be around longer to live out the decisions we make."
Dustin McDaniel, 32, of Jonesboro, is running for a House seat and says that the younger legislators may be able to work together better than their older counterparts.
"Term limits mean there is a lack of time to build good relationships," McDaniel said. "There is the potential for young legislators to build friendships more quickly. We have children of the same age, and similar motivations to run. We are subconsciously connected by the era in which we live."
There is hope among all of the young politicians that they will be able to infuse government with a fresh perspective.
"Anytime you have a group of younger people coming into an institution, you are going to bring new ideas," Thompson said.
However, it is important to note that while term limits are creating opportunities to run for legislative seats, they have not changed the prevailing macro-dynamics of state politics. Consider the fact that 17 out of the 18 under-40 incumbents are running unopposed, which means that certain districts remain safely in the control of one party or the other.
So while "good young boy" doesn't roll off the tongue as easily as "good ole boy," it may be the simplest way of conveying the most noticeable shift in our state's political landscape.
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