Arkansas Accidents

Paul Jacob

1/19/2014 11:26:00 AM - Paul Jacob

Call OSHA. Quick! We desperately need the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to take a look at the incredibly dangerous flooring in the Arkansas State Capitol.

This federal agency could determine why the state’s legislators are slipping or stumbling or tripping (that’s it!) so badly that legislative provisions they never, ever intended to enact are flying out of their briefcases or folders (or you-know-what) to land inexplicably into law.

Laws they pass without having read. Of course.

In last year’s legislative session — the first with both chambers of the state’s General Assembly controlled by Republicans since the century before the last century — Arkansas solons proposed three constitutional amendments for placement on the November 2014 ballot.

One of those amendments would make it even more difficult for citizens to petition an initiative or referendum onto the statewide ballot, making legislators more powerful and citizens less so. Ominous. But, worse yet, one of the other two passed — by overwhelming margins — was an “ethics” amendment.

Now, wait . . . ethics are good, right? Why “worse yet”?

Because the so-called ethics amendment, which dubs itself “The Arkansas Elected Officials Ethics, Transparency, and Financial Reform Act,” isn’t very ethical. Or transparent.

A more accurate title would be the Anti-Term Limits Measure of 2014.

Snuck into the amendment, and not addressed in the short title of the legislation at all, is a gutting of the term limits law enacted by voters. Legislators have proposed a 16-year term limit. Seriously. (Though, quietly.) The voters enacted six-year House limits, not the 16 years proposed now by legislators. The voters limit state senators to two four-year terms, while legislators are trying to double their ride on the gravy train.

A number of legislators now claim they didn’t know the term limits provision was in the legislation. Others explain that their ‘aye’ vote was cast mistakenly on their behalf after they had left the building. One can believe them or not, but the one undeniable fact is that the legislature did place this constitutional amendment on the ballot.

Admittedly, the longer title of the phony ethics/anti-term limits amendment does indeed mention term limits, but in an extremely deceptive way, stating the measure is “establishing term limits for members of the General Assembly.” Since term limits are already the law, a new amendment would hardly “establish” them. Instead, it weakens those voter-enacted term limits to the point of absurdity.

No need to mention that.

Term limits were first passed in 1992 with a 60 percent vote of the people. In 2004, when legislators tried to weaken those limits, they titled their amendment with similarly disingenuous wording. But they didn’t fool many folks. Then-Gov. Mike Huckabee called it “misleading and dishonest,” and voters re-affirmed their support for real term limits — this time with a 70 percent vote.

The current scheme to wreck term limits was hatched by Sen. Warwick Sabin (D-Little Rock). To succeed, he and fellow legislators (and powerful special interests) must successfully hide the measure as a “good government” ethics proposal, so that voters read language on their ballot about “ethics” and “transparency” and “reform.” Don’t dare mention stomping on the current term limits law and replacing it with a 16-year limit.

Those murdering term limits in its sleep had carefully tip-toed past the state’s dominant newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which apologized in late October for not having caught this trickiness during the end of last year’s session in April. The paper called the amendment the “outrage of the year” and asked, “If this slick maneuver is as example of ethics, transparency and reform, what would trickiness, opacity and a return to the Bad Old Days be?”

Recently, the tale has become even more interesting . . . back to OSHA and the occupational malpractice that threatens the safety of Arkansas’s republican form of government.

Hidden in a separate piece of legislation passed last year was a strange provision dealing with setting ballot language for measures referred by the legislature. Legislators took the power to write a ballot measure’s “Popular Name” — the so-called short title — away from the Attorney General, who previously enjoyed that statutory role, and gave it to themselves.

No one knows why. No one had any role in it. An “accident.”

And yet, we have it on good authority that, “in politics, nothing happens by accident.” It was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who famously advised that, “If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way.”

But the best laid plans of politicians . . .

You see, now with the power to write the language to go on the ballot, and after legally stripping any other elected official of that same power, the plotters neglected to do one teensy-weensy thing: provide that language.

The upshot? The sneaky, dishonest anti-term limits amendment may not appear on the ballot.

A short title, in Arkansas called a “Popular Name,” is constitutionally mandated for any measure to be submitted to the voters. But the Attorney General can no longer do it, and the Secretary of State has already made it clear that his office lacks both constitutional or statutory authority to do so.

Only the Arkansas Legislature, by a two-thirds vote, can take action to place the constitutionally required short title on the anti-term limits amendment. What sort of title will they write? Will they hide their attack on term limits behind words like “transparency”?

Can Sen. Warwick and state legislative leaders muster a two-thirds vote of both chambers in an open attempt to stick a dagger in popular term limits?

This time the public will be watching . . . and it’s an election year.