When Arkansans headed to the polls earlier this month, many of them probably did not realize one of the items on the ballot was an extension of term limits for lawmakers.
Up until 1992 there was no limit on the number of years a person could hold office in Arkansas. Then, 22 years ago, Arkansans chose to institute a limit. At most, a person could serve 6 years in the Arkansas House of Representatives (3 terms); 8 years in the Arkansas Senate (2 terms); and 8 years (2 terms) in any constitutional office, like Governor, Lt. Governor, Attorney General, and so on. Once you max out the number of years you can serve in an office, you’re done; you can never run for that office again.
This has left many elected officials hopping from office to office. Where once upon a time a person might serve 30 years in the Arkansas House of Representatives, today a lawmaker typically starts in the House; runs for the Arkansas Senate after 4-6 years; serves 8 years in the Senate; and then makes a run at a constitutional office, like Secretary of State, or gets a job in a state department or agency. The result is many of the legislators in the House of Representatives are brand new lawmakers while some of the members of the executive branch have been coming out to the Capitol for 20 years or more.
There is little doubt term limits is popular in Arkansas. When it was proposed in 1992, it received nearly 60% of the vote. Every attempt to change term limits was rejected–until November 4 of this year.
Issue 3 appeared on the ballot as, among other things, a constitutional amendment “setting term limits for members of the General Assembly.” If you like term limits, then “setting term limits” sounds pretty good–as if you are putting a limit on the length of time someone can serve in office. If you read the measure, however, you see the amendment didn’t “set” term limits. It extended term limits.
Under Arkansas’ old term limits law, a legislator could serve 6 years in the Arkansas House and 8 years in the Arkansas Senate for 14 years, altogether, between the two chambers. Under this new amendment, lawmakers may serve up to 16 years, total, between the two chambers.
Rather than limit the time a person can serve in the House and in the Senate, this new amendment divides the 16 years between both chambers. That means lawmakers can serve 16 years in the House, or 16 years in the Senate. They can serve 8 years in each chamber, for 16 years total. They get to divide the years as they see fit.
Because of some special provisions in the amendment, however, many lawmakers will get to serve 18 years in the General Assembly, and a few will get to serve upwards of 20 or more years. Here is how:
If a lawmaker’s sixteenth year in the General Assembly occurs in the middle of his or her term, he or she doesn’t have to leave office; they get to finish out their term.
So if someone serves 14 years (7 terms) in the Arkansas House of Representatives, they can still run for Arkansas Senate. If elected to the Senate, their sixteenth year in office will occur halfway through their term, but the amendment lets them go ahead and finish their Senate term. That means they get 14 years in the House and 4 years in the Senate for 18 years total. I would not be surprised if many legislators try to take advantage of this loophole.
Additionally, lawmakers elected to office as a result of special elections and senators assigned 2-year terms following redistricting (which occurs every 10 years in Arkansas) may actually serve upwards of 20 or 22 years. That’s because the amendment doesn’t count years in office as a result of special elections toward the 16 years a lawmakers gets to serve.
For example, if a senator were to leave office for any reason during his or her term, that senate seat would become vacant, and a special election would likely be held to fill it. Whoever gets elected to that seat as a result of the special election gets to finish the previous senator’s term without having that time in office count toward their 16 years.
So if a senator resigns from office halfway through his term, his replacement gets to serve 2 years in office, and then can still serve 16 more years after that (18 years total). At some point during those 18 years, the State of Arkansas will redraw its legislative districts. When it does, senators will be assigned, at random, 2-year and 4-year terms; this prevents every senator from being up for re-election at once. Under this new term limits amendment, a 2-year term as a result of redistricting does not count toward a state senator’s term limit, and if a senator’s sixteenth year in office occurs during a 4-year term, he or she still gets to finish the term.
So between special elections and redistricting, a state senator could serve upwards of 18 – 22 years in office, under Arkansas’ new term limits law voters passed this year.
To be fair, most lawmakers will probably only serve 16 years in the legislature; but many will serve 18 years, and a few will get 20 – 22 years in office.
Of course there is a another side to the term limits coin: Many legislators who left office due to term limits are still very popular in their home districts–and now they are eligible to run for another term in the House or Senate.
Up until this year, anyone who was “term limited” out of the legislature did so after serving 14 years in office. But now every one of those former lawmakers can run for one more term in the Arkansas House or Senate come 2016.
I would not be surprised if a lot of familiar faces start showing up in Arkansas politics once again, now that this term limits extension amendment has passed.
Jerry is the founder and president of Family Council. He began Family Council in 1989 after a successful effort to amend the Arkansas Constitution to prevent the use of public funds for abortions. He and his wife reside in Little Rock. They have four sons.