As legislators get down to work, Republicans outnumber Democrats in both chambers for the first time in modern history, but that is not the only unique feature of the 89th General Assembly.
In addition to a new party in control, a slew of freshman legislators will fill the seats. In the House, 40 of 100 members will be freshmen. In the Senate, 15 of 35 are first-time senators, although most have some legislative experience in the House. And, a few House members have been senators. Still, over 40 percent of our state legislators are considered freshmen.
This young Legislature is a product of the Arkansas law on term limits, passed overwhelmingly by voters in 1992. By the election of 1998, the state’s most seasoned lawmakers began terming out. Now, every legislator in office has been elected during the term-limits era.
The result is a Legislature with a lot of newcomers but one with very little experience. That is especially true in the House, where the average legislative experience among members is less than two years. House Speaker Davy Carter, the chamber’s elected leader, took office for the first time in 2009. Unsurprisingly, he is not a fan of term limits.
“Term limits are not working,” said Carter, speaking at the Clinton School of Public Service. “It looks pretty self-serving for a guy like me to tell you that, but it’s true. They don’t work.”
Carter described the impossible task of a representative elected in November having to become an expert on issues ranging from Medicaid to higher education or state budgetary issues by January. It’s not like they can lean on a bunch of experienced lawmakers to be their guides.
“You find that you go through that process and right about the time you get ready to leave, you start to understand how the world goes around. Our constituents are done a disservice by the current set-up,” insisted Carter. “If it doesn’t give you cause for concern, it should.”
One problem with the weakening of the state legislative body through term limits is that the executive branch of government becomes much stronger. Although term limits apply to the governor as well, incumbent Gov. Mike Beebe has been elected to some sort of state office since elected the state Senate in 1982, giving him 30 years of experience.
In addition, state employees, including department heads, do not have term limits and often hold their position across many years and multiple administrations. State department directors have decades of experience and know their own budgets and agency operations much better than any state legislator could.
So, if the goal of term limits was to create a strong state bureaucracy with an inexperienced Legislature providing oversight and budgetary approval, then congratulations, it is working. But I doubt that was the goal.
The original constitutional amendment was drawn up by a small group of citizens organized by Tim Jacob, a copy machine salesman in Arkansas whose brother, Paul, is a libertarian-minded activist who has spearheaded the term limits movement nationwide. In an interview with the Arkansas Policy Foundation, Tim Jacob said his motivation was to create “more choices at the ballot box.”
In that respect, term limits has been successful. With few incumbents and more open seats, there have been many more contested races both in primaries and in general elections. Forced-out incumbents have been replaced by fresh faces.
The same theoretically could happen without term limits, but incumbents hold an advantage, especially incumbents who have been good at representing voters. That scenario puts the onus on voters to determine whether an incumbent has done a good job or not. But let’s face it — we, the voters, are a lazy bunch. Most voters aren’t willing to research the job done by their legislators. Term limits are popular because voters can relinquish that responsibility and force incumbents out of office.
The result is that we have a constitutional mandate for an inexperienced state Legislature. And as the House speaker put it, Arkansans are being done a disservice.
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Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His email is jason@TolbertReport.com.