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Arkansas Senate Wants Term Limits on 2020 Ballot

by Kristin Higgins - March 27, 2019

Arkansas CapitolVoters approved extending Arkansas' legislative term limits in 2014. People have been trying to change the law ever since.

The Arkansas Senate voted Tuesday, March 26 to refer a term limits amendment to voters in 2020, a few weeks after a ballot issue group notified the Secretary of State's Office that they would be circulating a petition for a citizen-initiated amendment on term limits. 

Both proposals carry the same name: The Arkansas Term Limits Amendment.

The Competing Amendments

Before it can be on the 2020 ballot, Senate proposal SJR15 needs to make it through the House of Representatives. That does not appear to be an issue. In recent years, the House has signed off on Senate proposals and vice versa. (The General Assembly has the authority to refer 3 ballot issues to voters).

Before it can be on the 2020 ballot, the citizen-initiated proposal needs to have the support of more than 89,000 voters whose signatures pass muster with the Secretary of State's review process. The proposal's ballot title also has to be certified by the Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners.

Though similarly named, the two possible 2020 constitutional amendments would do vastly different things with Arkansas' existing term limits for state legislators.

  • The Senate proposal would remove the existing life-time limit on how long legislators can serve. For legislators elected before 2021, they could continue to serve up to 16 years in office. For legislators elected after 2021, they would be allowed to serve 12 years in office. After that, they would have to take a four-year break before they could run again.
  • The citizen-initiated proposal is similar to the stricken 2018 ballot issue. It calls for limiting state senators to two four-year terms (8 years total) and state representatives to three two-year terms (6 years total). The proposal would prohibit legislators from ever changing the law regarding their years of service, allowing for any changes only through the citizen-initiated ballot process.

Arkansas Term Limits has tried several times since 2014 to put its proposal before voters. In 2018, they submitted tens of thousands of voter signatures only to see their constitutional amendment struck from the ballot by the Arkansas Supreme Court just ahead of Election Day in Zook v. Martin.

Since the passage of Amendment 94 in 2014, the group has been trying to reduce the number of years state legislators can serve in office via the ballot because they felt the legislature's amendment mislead voters. The ballot title said it would be "setting" term limits.

The sponsor of the Senate proposal has said he was trying to settle the state's term limit laws once and for all. Sen. Alan Clark's original proposal would have prevented anyone but the legislature from changing term limits in the future, but that section was dropped before Tuesday's vote.

"If we don't do this, we leave the door open for someone else to gut state government, particularly the people's branch," Clark was quoted in an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article on Tuesday's vote.

SJR15 is on the Friday agenda for the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs.

History of Term Limits in Arkansas 

Term limits have been on the Arkansas ballot three times over the past 30 years.

  • In 1992, Arkansas voters approved Amendment 73 by a vote of 494,326 (60%) in favor to 330,836 (40%) against. This amendment set terms for constitutional officers such as the governor and commissioner of state lands as well as state legislators. The amendment limited members of the House of Representatives to three two-year terms (a total of six years) and state senators to two four-year terms (a total of eight years).

  • In 2004, voters rejected a proposal to allow up to six two-year terms (12 years) in the House and three four-year terms (12 years) in the Senate. The proposal was defeated by a vote of 299,338 (30%) in favor to 703,171 (70 %) against.

  • In 2014, Arkansas voters approved Amendment 94 by a vote of 428,206 (52%) in favor to 388,459 (48%) against to set the current terms for state legislators. The amendment increased the number of years a state legislator could be in office. The change allowed state legislators to serve a total of 16 years combined in the House or Senate instead of a chamber-specific limit as previously approved. The proposal was known to many people as the “ethics amendment” because of new ethics requirements it included for legislators.