Sunday, August 18, 2013

Arkansas 'reform' just an obscurantist attack on term limits

Whereas first you don't succeed, lie lie again. That's the motto of the Arkansas state legislature, which is trying for the second time to effectively nullify the state's voter-approved term limits. This time they are stooping to obfuscation and deception get the job done.
Some background: By the early 1990s, legislative turnover in the legislature had become among the lowest in the nation, incumbents had became statistically unbeatable and hence the legislature became stagnant, dominated by its senior class and the special interests that supported them. The initial term limits measure was put on the ballot by citizens via the initiative process, winning with 60 percent in 1992.

The popularity of the term limits grew significantly over time. In 2004, when legislators tried to weaken the limits, 70 percent of the voters rebuffed them.

Today, Arkansas is a model for other states, with a part-time legislature meeting every other year, reasonable compensation and genuine term limits. According to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which annually compares states according to a fixed list of economic variables, Arkansas routinely ranks in the top half or even quartile of its peers.

That's fine for the citizenry, but less so for self-interested legislators who want sail back into office in uncompetitive elections for perpetuity. Legislators learned the hard way Arkansans are not going to gut term limits in an honest vote. So, this year, they voted to place the, ahem, Elected Officials Ethics, Transparency and Financial Reform Amendment on the ballot in 2014.

Notice this lofty title doesn't even mention the central point of the the bill, a provision to gut term limits by permitting legislators to spend 16 years in the House or Senate or some combination of the two. Currently, legislators are limited to six years in the House and eight in the Senate.

The amendment contains a bunch of add-ons -- some with merit and some without -- but together are intended only to bury the attack on term limits in a friendly-sounding 'reform' package.

Oh well, proponents say, term limits are being deemphasized because the popular term limits are only being tweaked a teeny-weeny bit. Currently, a legislator is permitted to serve six years in the House and then eight in the Senate for a total of 14 years. The new limit would be 16 so this is only an additional two years. Friendly pundits are already pooh-poohing this change as almost an afterthought.

But this an intentional deception. The new House term limit would now be 16 years, not six. The new term limit in the Senate will be 16 years, not eight. Today, the jump from one chamber to the other requires a competitive election in which term-limited candidate may be facing another term-limited candidate in a competitive election. This is what politicians are desperate to avoid. This is the nugget hidden in this basket of smoke.

History and current polling suggest voters are unlikely to approve this measure if they are aware of its true purpose. The pols, lobbyists and friendly press will aim to obscure. Our job must be to educate. If we do our job, the voters will take care of the rest.