Arkansas Chamber of Commerce head predicts court challenges over ethics, term limits amendment

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LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — The head of Arkansas' largest business lobbying group said he expects court challenges to try and clarify key parts of a voter-approved constitutional amendment that imposes new ethics restrictions on lawmakers and loosens term limits.

Speaking at a panel discussion on the impact of the amendment, Arkansas Chamber of Commerce President Randy Zook said lobbyists want some clarification on the new rules they and lawmakers will be operating under. He said other parts of the amendment may need clarification from the courts.

"There are serious questions," Zook said. "I think we could subtitle this amendment, 'yet another lawyer's relief act,' because there are going to be a lot of court cases to clear up a lot of issues."

The amendment, which voters approved last month, bans most lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, increases the amount of time a lawmaker must wait after leaving office before registering as a lobbyist from one to two years and bars corporate contributions to state candidates' campaigns. The amendment also increases the amount of time legislators can spend in office from 14 years to 16 — and it allows them to spend it all in one chamber. Previously they were limited to three two-year terms in the House and two four-year terms in the Senate.

Zook said he has spoken with attorneys who question whether the 16-year limit "starts anew" with the amendment's passage and would allow the return of lawmakers who have already left the Legislature due to term limits.

"Some of you might relish Mike Beebe back in the Senate," Zook said, referring to the outgoing governor and former longtime state senator.

Sen. Jon Woods, one of the authors of the amendment, said legislative attorneys have assured him it doesn't have that intent.

"They're confident that it's only 16 years total and it doesn't start anew," Woods, R-Springdale, said.

Woods and Rep. Warwick Sabin, who co-sponsored the measure, have pre-filed legislation that they say will spell out how the state will enforce the amendment. The two said they're working on specifics for the proposal ahead of the legislative session that begins Jan. 12.

Sabin said the first step will be giving the Ethics Commission the power to advise lawmakers on the new amendment and to set rules on its enforcement.

"What we're trying to do for the citizens of Arkansas is eliminate not just the impropriety, but the appearance of impropriety, so they no longer question how these decisions are made," Sabin, D-Little Rock.

The amendment also creates a seven-member commission to review and adjust salaries for legislators, constitutional officers and judges. Those salaries were previously set in the constitution, but lawmakers were allowed to make cost-of-living adjustments. Beebe, legislative leaders and Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Hannah announced their appointments to that commission last week.

Monday's panel was hosted by the Clinton School of Public Service and the Political Animals Club.


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