Arkansas Voters To Consider Issue 3, Proposing Ethics Reforms

Oct 30, 2014

Crowds strolled along a busy street fair in downtown Russellville last weekend,  talking shop about antique cars. Tachany Evans, a Democratic candidate for District 68 of the state House of Representatives, stood with her pet Rottweiler near a 10-foot wooden statue of a Trojan horse that sat on a trailer bed.

Evans has traveled her district with the horse for the group Save Arkansas Term Limits to speak out against ballot Issue 3. The measure would add restrictions on lobbyist spending, loosen term limits for state legislators, create a two year gap between leaving the legislature and becoming a lobbyist and form a new commission to set legislator salaries.

Despite its ethics reforms, some are calling the measure a Trojan horse, or a power grab by the legislature disguised as a gift.

“The legal name is ‘The Arkansas Elected Officials, Ethics Transparency and Financial Reform Amendment of 2014.’ There is nothing transparent about this bill. They buried an extension of term limits on page 16 of a 22 page bill,” she said.

Issue 3 didn’t start out as a measure just about term limits. Republican state Senator Jon Woods of Springdale helped craft the measure along with Democratic Representative Warwick Sabin of Little Rock. Sabin had unsuccessfully proposed ethics reforms to lawmakers in 2012.

“There are instances in which lobbyists curry favor based on fact they can take them out to dinner, buy them a drink or buy them tickets to a concert. And I think we need to remove even the appearance of impropriety from the process,” said Sabin.  

In order to get ethics reforms on the November ballot, Sabin compromised with Woods to include in the measure a new commission that would set legislator salaries and term limit extensions.

Arkansas’s General Assembly is one of the few citizen legislatures in the country. According to Woods it has the nation’s strictest term limits and lowest salaries, at around $15,000 a year. Woods says the current term limits don’t give lawmakers much time to get things done.

Right now you can do six years in the house but it feels like it’s really only four years. A lot of people their third term are looking at running for other offices. They’re looking at what’s down the road, what am I going to do next and it shouldn’t be that way,” he said.

Issue 3 would allow a total of 16 years in either house or in the two houses combined.  Some lawmakers agree more time in office would help them become better legislators. 

At a recent hearing on the state’s private option, first term Republican Representative John Hutchison, from Harrisburg, struggled to understand aspects of the discussion.

"I thought I read where it was 300 providers too, is that correct?” Hutchison asked Cindy Crone of the Arkansas Insurance Department.

"No sir, there are 5 issuers," she responded.

"Maybe sub-contracted something... maybe? or..."

"No."

Hutchison, who lost his primary election and won’t be back for a second term, said extending term limits would be a good thing.

“You gotta be on top of things and it’s not really simplified, sometimes that makes it tough on a first year legislator,” he said in an interview.

Tim Jacob, from Save Arkansas Term Limits, said Arkansas voters overwhelmingly disapproved of extended term limits by popular vote in 2004. According to Jacob, lawmakers have waged a 'campaign of silence' about this part of the issue.

"They say the measure is worded on the ballot as 'establishing' term limits, not extending existing ones. It’s not going to be available for voters at the polling place. It doesn’t use the word increase, double - doesn’t use the word extend or lengthen,” said Jacob. Senator Woods responded the measure has several parts and was not written to deceive voters.

With early voting underway. Four of five voters at a Pulaski County voting site in downtown Little Rock Tuesday evening said the way Issue 3 was written on the ballot was confusing or unclear.

“It was very vague in the different parts of it. It’s a ballot measure that includes a lot of different things. It’s hard to put it in one succinct sentence,” said Robert Jacoby.

“It was not worded clearly. You had to really read it to make a distinction between what it was asking for,” said Barbara Wilborn.

A spokesperson for Regnant Populus, an advocacy group involved in crafting the measure, said its lawyers are at work on stronger ethics reforms in case this measure fails.