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Back in November, voters cast enough ballots in favor of new Arkansas term limits that they became Amendment 94 to the state Constitution. As is often the case with laws arising from the General Assembly, we'll now get to find out what it means.

Last Friday, state Sen. Jon Woods of Springdale, one of the authors of the amendment, asked the attorney general to issue an opinion clarifying how the new term limits will be applied. Done one way and the voters' wishes will be carried out; done another, and it will amount to politicians wresting more power from the people with smoke and mirrors.

What’s The Point?

New terms limits approved by Arkansas voters last November should not be twisted to give current and former lawmakers a new 16-year window in which to serve, if re-elected.

Despite what the title appearing on the Nov. 4 ballot said, Arkansas voters did not "set" term limits in 2014. Voters took care of that in 1992 by limiting members of the state House of Representatives to three two-year terms and members of the Arkansas Senate to two four year terms. But state lawmakers crafted a measure for the 2014 ballot that combined an extension of term limits with some desirable ethics and campaign finance restrictions. Critics lambasted the proposal as a deceptive maneuver to give politicians more time in office. Few gave it a chance to pass. Then Arkansas voters surprised them all with passage by 52 to 48 percent.

The new law erased any difference in the limits between the two houses of government. Now, a lawmaker may serve a total of 16 years in office, whether the time is in the Senate, the House or some combination of the two. House members are still elected to two-years terms; senators are elected to four-year periods.

Now, with Amendment 94 firmly in place, Woods hopes the attorney general can clear up its application. Randy Zook, who leads the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, said at a recent forum that some attorneys have interpreted the law's language to negate previous service in the General Assembly, essentially giving current and former lawmakers a clean slate. In essence, they claim the law resets the clock and makes everyone eligible for a new 16-year ticker.

"They fooled the voters," said Tim Jacob of the group Arkansas Term Limits, which fought to keep the 1992 version in place.

We've long held that the most American of term limits are called elections, and voter can turn out a senator or representative anytime they choose. But they most often don't. Incumbency is indeed an effective re-election tool. However, if Arkansas is to have term limits, we also favored their extension because the 1992 version was too constraining. When the most senior leaders in either chamber has only two to four years more experience as an incoming rookie, Arkansans have weakened the effectiveness of their elected representatives.

Let's hope, though, that all of this worry about resetting the clocks and giving current and former lawmakers a clean start is just hogwash. That's clearly not the outcome Arkansans wanted. They want term limits, and their votes in November shouldn't be twisted to give shelter to power-grabbing lawmakers. If a lawmaker has served four years in either chamber, for example, his remaining eligibility should be measured at 12 years.

That's enough time for representation, but not so much that it abuses the wishes of the public.

Commentary on 01/01/2015

Print Headline: Term Limits Should Not 'Reset Clock'

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