LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — More than two decades ago, Arkansas was among the first states to embrace the term limits movement by restricting how long lawmakers could serve in its Legislature. No one championed the movement more loudly than the state's Republicans, who saw it as a way to loosen the Democratic Party's generations-old grip on Arkansas' elected offices.
But now that Republicans have turned the state red, things have gotten complicated. GOP leaders have decided that legislators should be able to stay longer after all. Term-limits purists insist on holding the line. The question may now be headed back to a state ballot for the second time in only two years, with the prospect of Arkansas swinging back and forth between three different sets of rules since 2012.
"People want government to be more representative," said Tim Jacob, spokesman for a group gathering signatures to put tougher term limits before the voters again in November. "People don't want power bases built in our Legislature."
The conflict has split the ranks of conservatives, and created the awkward situation of top officials switching positions as practical politics vied with principle. The leaders of both legislative chambers, Senate President Jonathan Dismang and House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, are backing the longer incumbent-friendly terms, which were approved in a referendum in 2014.
Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson so far has stayed out of the fray.
Fifteen states have adopted term limits for their lawmakers. Arkansas decided in 1992 to limit state senators to two four-year terms and House members to three two-year terms.
Making statehouse offices temporary would "ultimately bring new faces and new ideas to state government," Hutchinson declared at the time, when he was chairman of the state Republican Party and Democrats held 90 percent of the Legislature's seats.
But three years ago with Republicans in control of both the House and Senate, legislative leaders included a provision in a campaign reform referendum that allowed lawmakers to spend up to 16 years in one chamber. Voters approved the measure the following year. Republicans now control 88 of the 135 seats in the House and Senate.
Gillam, a five-year House member who would have been booted next year without the extension, said he has learned the value of experience in getting meaningful legislation done.
"I know I hear from people all the time they're tired of us being at the bottom of the country in education and economic development and health care and the list goes on and on. They list this as a factor," he said, referring to rapid legislator turnover.
State Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb said his party only disagrees on the length of the terms, not on limiting them.
But Jacob's group, Restore Term Limits, scorns the loosened limits as deceptive, and has been bringing a mock wooden Trojan Horse to events around to the state to underscore the point.
Philip Blumel, the president of the U.S. Term Limits organization in Washington, said the fight boils down more to between those in power and those who aren't.
Those Republicans once led the charge for term limits, "once they're in power they find the prospect of competitive elections a lot less attractive," he said.
The group needs to gather nearly 85,000 signatures from registered voters to get its proposal on the ballot. If approved, it would not only restore the old House and Senate limits but also cap the total number of years at 10, which would apply to members jumping from one chamber to the other. It would also prevent the Legislature from putting any further term limit revisions on the ballot.
Blumel said he worried that if the effort isn't successful, Arkansas could become a model for how to ease term limits.
"I think it opens the door to trouble in other states," Blumel said.
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