Many politicians prove themselves nothing better than powerful arguments for term limits. But Arkansas State Senator Jon Woods rivals the very best of them.
Sen. Woods (R-Springdale) and State Rep. Warwick Sabin (D-Little Rock) co-authored a 22-page, 7,000-plus-word constitutional amendment that voters will find on this November’s state ballot. If passed, the amendment, simply known to voters as Issue 3, will constitute roughly one-eighth of the entire Arkansas Constitution — even including all 85 previous amendments to that document.
Issue 3 is so long, in fact, that it cost Arkansas taxpayers more than $1 million to print it in newspapers throughout the state, as required by law.
These two loquacious legislators claim that Issue 3 is about ethics and transparency. Are they right?
Woods and Sabin did indeed throw together various ethics provisions — banning certain gifts to legislators and blocking legislators from becoming lobbyists for two years after leaving office, for instance. The monstrously long measure also outlaws corporate contributions, which of course, though popular on the left, is unconstitutional on its face.
These provisions were all lifted (with some watering-down) from a 2012 citizens’ initiative written by a group of serious and well-meaning liberal activists. Their petition drive to place the statutory ethics initiative on the ballot started late and failed to gather enough signatures from voters. No surprise there — most initiatives fail to make the ballot in the first attempt.
Notice, though, that their straightforward ethics initiative did not seek to amend the state constitution. It was a simple statute, because none of their reforms required altering the state’s foundational document.
Woods and Sabin, on the other hand, apparently had other matters in mind. They stuck into the “ethics” and “transparency” measure a gutting of voter-enacted legislative term limits. Weakening their own term limits does indeed require amending the constitution.
It is also exceedingly unpopular. Polls show term limits to be wildly well-liked by state voters (and every group sans politicians). Arkansans first enacted term limits in 1992 with a 60 percent Yes vote — the largest affirmative vote in state history. Twelve years later, in 2004, legislators tried to loosen those limits and voters told them No with a 70 percent vote.
What are scheming politicians to do?
Well, Woods and Sabin wrote a ballot title. They tell the voters that Issue 3 is — get this — “establishing term limits.” Isn’t that positive? No need bothering to inform people that they would be voting to double how long legislators can stay in the Senate and more than double the House limit — to a whopping 16 years!
This past week, the folks opposing Issue 3, Arkansas Term Limits, announced TV ads alerting the public to the scam. The group’s co-chair, Tim Jacob (in full disclosure: my brother), charged that legislators have “pursued a campaign of silence . . . letting the deceptive ballot title do their work,” so that “when Arkansas voters go to the polls there will be no mention of the doubling of term limits.”
“We believe voters have a right to know what’s in it,” Jacob explained.
The unrepentant Sen. Woods flew into a rage over the ads, decrying their negative tone: “I think people are tired of the negative campaigning and all the negative ads.”
The senator also audaciously called the television spots extremely “misleading” for pointing out that his Issue 3 is extremely “deceptive.” Meanwhile, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that, after asking Sen. Woods point-blank if the ballot language he authored wasn’t actually quite misleading, “Woods said he doesn’t know.”
There is one other little tidbit Sen. Woods and Rep. Sabin slipped into Issue 3, which has gotten far less attention than the knife-attack on term limits. The measure would set up an “Independent Citizens Commission.” The purpose of this commission is to set the salaries for elected officials: legislators, the governor, other statewide officers and judges.
Supporters of the salary-setting commission argue that it prevents legislators from raising their own salaries. That sounds good, eh?
But a cynic might dare suspect the commission to be a sham. And our politicians always make cynics appear wise, if not actually clairvoyant.
First, this “independent” body would be appointed, not elected. By whom? A majority of the seven-crony commission would be chosen by the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. Two more would be hand-picked by the governor and one appointed by the Chief Justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Second, a majority of this commission would have no check whatsoever on their power, enjoying the constitutional authority to hike salaries for legislators and other state officials as high as . . . well, as high as they want to go. Wait a second, would a million-dollar pay boost to legislators really be constitutional and beyond any recourse from the citizenry? The answer is: Yes. And yes. But after the first pay hike of say, $100,000 or $1 million or whatever, the pay could only be increased by 15 percent per year.
To politicians, that’s known as limited government.
An increasingly defensive Woods told reporters now waking up to the details of Issue 3 that its defeat would make “a lot of lawmakers extremely happy,” since they supposedly don’t like the tame ethics provisions. Funny, his term-limits-wrecking, pay-hiking measure passed the Senate, 23-4, and the House, 71-12.
Asked about a resolution opposing Issue 3, passed nearly unanimously by the 350-plus delegates at the Arkansas GOP’s official state convention, Sen. Woods actually stated, “You just have a couple of nuts that got together on a Saturday that were out of touch with Arkansans and passed a silly resolution that in no way reflects the point of view of all Republicans in Arkansas.”
Perhaps Democratic Party politicians are smarter. I haven’t shared any statements from the Democratic co-author of Issue 3, because Rep. Warwick Sabin is nowhere to be found in news coverage . . . likely hiding under his bed.
And this, Sen. Woods recently said, is “bipartisanship at its best.”
October 19, 2014
This column first appeared at Townhall.com.