PART 1 of this article covered the origin of Issue No. 3 HJR1009 and the proposal’s plan to use ethics reform as the excuse to weaken term limits and get higher salaries for legislators and elected official of the executive branch. (Read Part 1)
This Part 2 examines what the legislature would get from the proposal – weaker term limits and a way to get big salary increases.
PART 2 – TERM LIMITS & SALARY INCREASES
PAYBACK – TERM LIMITS
Arkansas’ current term limits law, Amendment 73, was adopted in 1992. The preamble of Amendment 73 reads, “The people of Arkansas find and declare that elected officials who remain in office too long become preoccupied with reelection and ignore their duties as representatives of the people. Entrenched incumbency has reduced voter participation and has led to an electoral system that is less free, less competitive, and less representative than the system established by the Founding Fathers. Therefore, the people of Arkansas, exercising their reserved powers, herein limit the terms of elected officials.
Amendment 73 limits a person to serving only 3 terms of 2 years in the House, and 2 terms of 4 years in the Senate. Some legislators can serve longer because a partial term resulting from the filling of a vacancy does not count. Also, in the Senate, reapportionment and the staggering of terms sometimes causes a Senator to only have a term of 2 years terms and 2-year terms in the Senate do not count.
Proponents of longer term limits always cite the limits on House service which is only 3 terms of 2 years. This means that every two years, at least 1/3 of the House membership will be freshmen. Even I find the massive turn over a bit concerning, but the system works. Proponents of longer term limits don’t stop at wanting to change House limits. They add longer term limits for Senators as well.
Comparing the proposal with current term limits. HJR1009 proposes to allow 16 years of service in the House, Senate or combined service. The current term limits allow a total of 14 years if the person serves both in the House and Senate (6 years in the House and 8 years in the Senate). The difference in total service is not just 2 years. Because of exceptions in the proposal the difference may be more.
Both the current law and the proposal have exceptions. Under the proposal, filling of a vacancy for less than 2 years has no effect on term limits and a legislator may continue serving to the end of a term even if the 16-year threshold occurs during the term.[i]
Enhancing the power of incumbency. Under current law, if you have served 6 years in the House and you want to keep serving in the legislature, you have to run in a Senate district that is different from your House district and you will no longer be an incumbent. Compare that with a 16-year limit that allows you to be the incumbent in every election after your first race. That is a significant shift in the power of incumbency and is something term limits advocates fought against.
Shifting power from the Executive Branch to the Legislative Branch. With a legislator being able to serve 16 years in the same seat and the Governor only being allowed to serve 8 years, the legislature would gain power. (This is a concern for some, but doesn’t bother me, having worked for the legislature for years. So, I still have a bit of a bias for the Legislative Branch in its struggle with the Executive Branch.)
Retirement benefits made easier. Members of the General Assembly are covered by the Arkansas Public Employees Retirement System. Regular state employees vest in APERS after 5 years of service, but members of the General Assembly need 10 years of actual legislative service to vest. Because of term limits, many members of the General Assembly never gain the 10 years needed to vest in the retirement system. For example a legislator with 6 years in the House still needs one term of 4 years in the Senate to qualify.
A term limit of 16-years benefits legislators by allowing them to vest in APERS without having to serve in both the House and Senate. Having the power of incumbency throughout those 16 years also makes it more likely that the legislator will achieve the 10-years vesting requirement.
The significance of retirement benefits should not be overlooked. Retirement benefits may be one of the reasons that it now seems more popular for former legislators to go to work for the Governor or one of his a state agencies than to become a lobbyist.
PAYBACK – SALARY RESTRICTIONS REMOVED.
The last amendment to the constitution to increase salaries of legislators and officers of the Executive Branch was passed in 1992 as Amendment 70. Although it has been 22 years since the passage of Amendment 70, the amendment was supposed to make future amendments unnecessary because it allowed an annual cost-of-living adjustment using the Consumer Price Index. The adjustments, if any, are made by an appropriation bill
Shifting the burden from the legislature. Currently, legislators have to vote to approve their cost-of-living increase. Even though the increases are small, the public watches. This proposal takes the burden and responsibility off of the legislators and shifts it to a politically appointed committee.
The sky is the limit. The proposal removes the current restriction that limits increases to only a cost-of-living adjustment based on the Consumer Price Index. Under the proposal there is no limit on the initial salary change! After the change in the first year, future changes are limited to 15% up or down. This still allows a big increase each year. But wait it gets worse. The 15% limit could be changed or eliminated by a 2/3rds vote of the legislature. More about that below.
Independent Citizen’s Committee – just a pretty name. The proposal creates an “Independent Citizens Committee” to set salaries. Using the words “independent” and “citizens” makes it sound wonderful but would it sound wonderful if you described it as the “Committee Appointed by the Politicians Whose Salaries Are Being Set”?
Yes, the committee is made up of political appointees. The 7 member committee would be made up by: 2 people appointed by the Governor; 2 people appointed by the Speaker of the House; 2 people appointed by the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and 1 person appointed by the Chief Justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Gee, do you suppose the committee members might look favorably on salary requests by the people who appointed them?
It is also worth noting that the legislative appointments on the committee make up a majority of the membership. If they voted together, the opinions of the appointees by the Governor and Chief Justice would not matter. This brings me to a theoretical question that I will leave to you to decide: “Could the committee ever be used to punish an officer who ‘doesn’t fall in line,’ by reducing his or her salary by 15%?”
Salaries in the Judicial Branch. Judicial Branch salaries are already set by the General Assembly,[ii] but the proposal may make it easier for them to get larger increases than would have been allowed by the legislature.
Authority to change the salary provisions. Most constitutional amendments require a vote of the people to change it, but this proposal allows the legislature to change the salary provision by a 2/3rds vote. Want to remove all limits on how much of an increase the committee can give? Yes, that can be done. Want to prohibit the committee from reducing salaries? That can be done too. Want to change the membership of the committee? Go ahead.
The proposal says the legislative changes must be, “germane to this section and consistent with its policy and purposes.” Still sounds like you can drive a truck through that restriction.
PART 3 of this article looks at: (1) the ethics provisions contained in HJR1009; (2) The proposal’s deceptive title; and (3) Provides a final summary.
[i] HJR1009 of 2013, page 16, lines 33 -36.
[ii][ii] Amend 80 § 16 (E)