Are Legislators Misleading You on Term Limits?
Have you seen the graphic above floating around on social media? Have you heard your legislator citing this "fact" as they try to talk you out of voting "Yes" this November to toughening up our term limits laws after they tricked us in 2014 into loosening them? I have. It's come from legislators like Mary Bentley, Alan Clark, Charlie Collins, and Bruce Cozart.
These are people I want to consider the "good guys". I already don't trust the Democrats, because they have become deranged and out of touch, but its getting to the point where I have to check out virtually everything I hear from Republican office holders too. And if its an issue like this, which threatens the interests of their club, when I check it out I often find that what they are telling us is misleading and incorrect. I consider this claim to be misleading and incorrect as well. Let me explain why....
First to put the claim in context. Only fifteen states have term limits. This isn't like a score on education or something where every state has a number. Only fifteen have numbers. Six more would have numbers, but according to Wikipedia in six states that had term limits they were either thrown out via court challenges or the legislature had the power to reverse its own and did so. Maybe people in other states want term limits, but the politicians who run things have been able to keep it off the ballot. The only reason our original term limits measure got on the ballot IMHO is because the Republicans felt they could move the Democrats out faster if there were term limits.
Of those fifteen states, here is a chart showing how long a legislator can remain can remain in office under the most important variables .....
As you can see, there are several variables involved. 1) Total consecutive years you can serve in the legislature 2) Total consecutive years you can serve in the same office ("total years in ONE office" column above) and 3) Total years you can serve in a lifetime - with the length of the break they have to stay out of office a factor in how tough this requirement is for those states which allow people to run again after a break from "service". Because there are three factors involved- with an important twist on the third so you might as well say four factors, giving a single answer as to "shortest" term limits laws in somewhat misleading in itself. Some of these laws are apples to oranges.
In the chart above I ranked how short the term limits laws were based on the total number of consecutive years a legislator could stay in the legislature. In most cases (but not Arkansas) this would require a hop from one chamber to the other. My fall-back criteria in case of a tie was this: "how many years could a legislator remain in the same office?" with one caveat. If a state let a legislator serve an unlimited number of terms after only missing one two year period I counted that as a weaker law than one which gave politicians more time in the legislature but did not let them come back after taking a two-year break.
Nebraska in my view has the toughest term limits laws in America even though it lets them come back after a four (not a two) year break. Nebraska only has one chamber in its legislature. They can't hop back and forth from one to the other to get more time. They can "serve" eight years, and then they have to sit out four. I suppose in theory they have an "unlimited" number of terms, but it would take them 24 years of life before they could begin to get more than the 16 years in the legislature available in Arkansas. That would require two four year bans from office during that time. I consider that way tougher than getting 16 years straight government gravy without a break. If you can come back after taking four years off and beat whoever replaced you, you are probably pretty good. I was probably unfair to Florida. If I made the top criteria how long you could stay in a single office, they'd be right up there with Nebraska. Like I said, its hard to get a single number when you are evaluating three or four criteria.
Now I want you to look at the yellow zone on that chart. Basically that is the "middle zone" of term limits laws. All eight of those states have 16 years of total consecutive service in the legislature as a parameter. That's the same as Arkansas. But four of those states let a person get a chance to start over once they take a two year break from service. So I count that as the weakest possible 16 year term limits law. That describes four of those eight states. But three of the eight not only have a lifetime limit of 16 years in the legislature, just like Arkansas, but they have a limit of 8 years in any one office while in Arkansas lets someone stay 16 years in the same chamber. IOW even though the total years in office is tied those three states put more limitations on how those years are spent so they must be counted as tough in term limits laws than Arkansas.
That puts Arkansas at 7 out of 15 on the list. In other words, right about the middle of the pack. Now you may argue that Nebraska does not belong ahead of Arkansas on that list because it does allow people "unlimited" terms after a four year ban after every eight years, but even if you counted it that way Arkansas would be 6th out of 15. I just don't see where they are getting their number that Arkansas has the "5th shortest" term limits in the nation. Unless they mean it is tied for 5th with seven other states in terms of lifetime limits on length of service. If that's what they are arguing, I think its misleading. Don't you agree that they are misleading you by using that number?
Look, I don't think term limits are a panacea. In a perfect world, they wouldn't be good policy. But we don't live in a perfect world. We live in one where two very corrupt parties are deeply entrenched and people go in with virtue and come out troubled. In the world we live we not only need term limits but we need to do exactly what the opponents of term limits have been telling us we should do instead- vote for someone else. Vote for an independent. Vote for a libertarian. And vote for term limits.