One of the things we surely have learned from Arkansas politics of the past year is that term limits for public officials don’t guarantee integrity. One can violate the public trust in a short time.
Those who brought term limits to Arkansas in 1992 as part of a national movement argued that limiting the terms of public officials would make them less susceptible to the influence of special interest groups and more likely to live up to our expectations of being honest and ethical — “closer to the people.”
Since the passage Amendment 63 to the state constitution, we’ve managed to give many more people a chance to serve in the Legislature, some of whom have been ill suited for the job. And we’ve seen a rotation of constitutional officers, such as Charlie Daniels, who is now serving in his third office but will apparently not go for another.
That’s a shame because he qualifies for another term as state auditor, and there are four more state offices.
In fact, two of the state offices are open because the people we elected to hold them resigned in disgrace. Our erstwhile state treasurer, Martha Shoffner, is facing a federal indictment for extortion, and our lieutenant governor, Mark Darr, announced over the weekend that he is stepping down to avoid impeachment over a litany of ethical violations.
This week, residents of Craighead County are electing a new state senator to replace one who quit after being fined for improper spending of campaign funds. A year earlier, a state representative from Marion resigned and then pleaded guilty to a vote-buying scheme.
So term limits didn’t exactly stamp out corruption, ethical lapses and campaign abuses, nor did it make one party more honest than the other. And thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, anonymous special interest groups and billionaires have more opportunities to influence elections, candidates and public officials.
Since 1992 various proposals have been advanced to modify the Arkansas term limits law, but none of them very far.
Another will be on the general election ballot in November. House Joint Resolution 1009 was one of three proposed amendments referred by the Legislature last year. The proposal got bipartisan support, passing the Senate 23-4 with seven senators not voting and the House 76-3 with 20 representatives not voting and one voting present.
The proposed amendment, titled “The Arkansas Elected Officials Ethics, Transparency and Financial Reform of 2014,” would prohibit direct political contributions from corporations and unions, require that lawmakers be out of office for two years before becoming lobbyists and create an independent citizens commission to set salaries for public officials.
But it would also adjust term limits to allow a lawmaker to serve a total of 16 years in the Legislature, removing the specific House and Senate limitations.
A group has already formed to fight the proposal, and it’s too early to tell how that campaign might go.
But the proposed amendment would not help us find competent people to fill the seven state constitutional officers.
Realistically, only three of them at most — governor, attorney general and secretary of state — should be elective offices. We ought to let the governor name an auditor, treasurer and commissioner of state lands.
Frankly, those offices aren’t very attractive anyway. The salary for each this year (as well as secretary of state) is $54,305, which is better than the state’s per capita income but hardly enough to attract the best and brightest.
Since none of those officers have any important authority, campaign contributions come mostly from personal funds, family members and friends.
The lieutenant governor’s office is even less attractive. Considered part-time, the salary this year is $41,896, still above Arkansas’ per capita income. The lieutenant governor has no power, unless the governor steps out of state or dies, so the special interest groups that pour money into other campaigns have no interest in the so-called “lite guv.”’
Our state offices have become a laughingstock. How much worse will it get before we change things?
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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.