LITTLE ROCK — Referred to voters with overwhelming support from both chambers of the Republican-led Legislature last year, a proposal to restrict lobbyists’ gifts to lawmakers and loosen Arkansas’ term limits was touted as a compromise way to put major ethics reforms on the November ballot.
But compromise could be the unraveling of the proposed constitutional amendment, which is facing growing opposition focused primarily on its term limits provisions.
The state Republican Party’s vote to oppose the ballot measure was the latest sign of trouble for a proposal that doesn’t have an organized campaign on its behalf and turned into a political liability for several GOP lawmakers during the spring primary campaign.
Opposition hasn’t focused on the ethics portion of the amendment, which in addition to restricting lobbyist gifts would prohibit corporate contributions to candidates and expand the ban on lawmakers becoming lobbyists from one to two years. The proposal also would set up an independent, seven-member commission to set salaries for legislators, constitutional officers and judges. The salaries for those positions are currently set in the state constitution, but lawmakers are allowed to make cost-of-living adjustments.
The proposal’s easing of the state’s term limits, among the strictest in the country, is what’s inspiring the ire of opponents and threatening the measure’s chances. The proposal would place a 16-year limit on serving in the Legislature, a limit that could be applied to either chamber. House members are currently restricted to serving three two-year terms, and senators are limited to two four-year terms.
Opponents of the measure claim lawmakers tried to pull a fast one on voters by including the term limits change in a proposal touted as focusing on ethics.
"This is a deception. It’s a Trojan horse," said Bob Porto, co-chairman of Arkansas Term Limits, which is leading the charge against the amendment. To underscore its argument, Porto says the group plans to use a 10-foot-tall wooden horse at events to campaign against the measure.
The resolution approved by Republicans didn’t mention any of the ethics provisions, and focused solely on the term limit changes. The vote against the measure shows how well opponents have been able to define the measure, and the challenge its proponents face. It comes after a primary season where several GOP lawmakers who voted to refer the measure to voters were tagged by rivals as anti-term limits.
The state Democratic Party hasn’t taken a position on the measure, and a spokeswoman said she doesn’t know of any effort for a similar resolution at the party’s convention next month.
The proposal, sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Warwick Sabin of Little Rock and Republican Sen. Jon Woods of Springdale, was presented as a bipartisan approach to tackling ethics reforms. It had won the support of Regnat Populus, a group that has been trying to put similar ethics measures before voters since 2012.
The term limits and salary provisions were part of the compromise effort to win support for referring the ethics measure to voters. Sabin he knew at the time that adding the term limits changes would pose challenges.
"It was a difficult compromise to make, but I had put these ethics proposals forward," Sabin said. "In my mind they’re the strongest ethics reforms that have been proposed in at least 20 years. Just the ban on lobbyist gifts alone will radically change the culture of the Legislature and how business is done there."
Woods said he’s disappointed with the resolution against the measure, but says he doesn’t view it as reflecting the party’s view on the proposal as a whole. He defended the term-limits provision, saying it’s not a major change and would help level the playing field for state lawmakers. He notes that the state’s congressional delegation doesn’t face any kind of limit on service.
"To say we’re trying to do away with term limits or make the discussion about term limits is a huge distraction from the other 80 percent of the bill," Woods said.
But the challenge will be in rallying support for the proposal. Regnat Populus Co-Chairman Paul Spencer says he plans to keep his word and support the proposal, but notes his group isn’t flush with cash for a major campaign effort. Spencer and Co-Chairman David Couch says they’re also working on a draft of a ballot measure for 2016 in case this year’s amendment fails.
"On the chance it doesn’t come through, you can rest assured we’re going to try other avenues and get substantial reforms in Arkansas," Spencer said.
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo