Leader Blues

Monday, April 30, 2007

TOP STORY >>Term limits to end legislators’ careers

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

Whether or not you think term limits are a good idea, your current state representative won’t be there for you when the state House of Representatives next reconvenes in 2009 if you live in or around Jacksonville, Cabot, Sherwood or Lonoke.
Gone from office will be Reps. Will Bond, Sandra Prater, Jeff Wood, Susan Schulte and Lenville Evans.

The current law limits state representatives to three two-year terms and state senators to two four-year terms. But Bond points out that by the end of his six years in office, the legislature will have been in session less than one year, including special sessions.

The Arkansas General Assembly meets every two years for 90 days—so that’s three years times 90 days, or 270 days.
Actually, the current crop of area representatives will have “termed out” after four years and 91 days, according to his reckoning.

Bond, the Jacksonville representative, has been particularly outspoken in his opposition to term limits as they now exist, and for his articulate and outspoken advocacy for change, U.S. Termlimits Inc., a national group, has mocked him in a 30-second television spot that features dancing cartoon pigs in a hay loft.

“Bond wants to gut term limits, just so (he) can dance with the lobbyists a little longer,” an off-screen voice says.
Bond sponsored an act to let voters decide whether or not to let both state representatives and senators each serve 12 years, but his act—far from partying with the lobbyists—would have prohibited any legislator from taking any sort of gratuity, trip, item, drink, meal or anything from a lobbyist. It also would have prohibited legislators from going to work a lobbyist for 12 months after leaving office.

Called the government reform act, it “would have banned lobbying and entertainment,” said Bond. “It made it to the joint committee, which adjourned without referring the bill out,” Bond said. Bond said he had been accused of trying to extend his own term, but said “I’m done. I’m not running for the House again, even if (limits) are extended.”

Including federal funds that pass through the legislature, lawmakers budget more than $14 billion, while employing about 10,000 people—more than Wal-Mart, and it’s not a job for a lot of inexperienced people. “We oversee appropriations,” said Bond. “We make determinations of budgets. No business would operate with anyone with less than one year experience making those decisions.” Evans, Schulte, Prater and Wood each agreed that representatives could be more effective if term limits were longer.

Each of the legislators expressed pride at the work done in the General Assembly during their three terms.


BOND

“As a group, legislatively, we’ve committed a tremendous amount of resources to education,” he said. “In 2004, we make tough tax decisions on Lakeview school adequacy,” he said. “I’m proud of the consolidation measure, it made a whole lot of sense.”

He said lawmakers enacted meaningful sentencing reform, including use of transitional housing as an options for some inmates.

“We have a moral imperative to give folks an opportunity at redemption,” he said. For many of his constituents, the leadership Bond asserted in advancing the possibility of a stand-alone Jacksonville school district may be his legislative legacy.

In 2005, he arranged for the state Education Department to hire consultants to assess the feasibility of a Jacksonville district.
Now that the idea has been found feasible, Bond promoted bills intended to help the state save about $60 million a year desegregation costs, and to hire consultants and lawyers to help get all Pulaski County school districts in compliance with the court-ordered desegregation agreement.


PRATER

Prater, who worked closely with Bond on several issues, sponsored a new law that requires additional training in Alzheimer’s and other dementia for certified nurse assistants, so they would better understand the disease process and be better able to take care of such patients in a nursing home, she said This session, she also passed a law creating the Traumatic Brain Injury Task Force. She said she had been asked the serve on that task force. It can help families who have to deal with family members with such injuries, including those coming back from Iraq. “We want to develop a statewide plan to move us forward, looking at treatment and at the same time having opportunities for families to get formation for necessary help,” she said.

She was lead sponsor on a bill that requires counseling and helps patients and their families assess various services available, including home health care, assisting living or nursing homes. “We think the cost factor will be better as well,” she said, “costing fewer Medicaid dollars.”

Prater wouldn’t rule out running for another office in the future, perhaps the seat to be vacated by state Sen. John Paul Capps in 2010.

WOOD

State Rep. Jeff Wood, D-Sherwood, said he would miss the people and the process, but would get to spend more time with his family. I enjoyed working the bill through the legislature, making a difference in lives of my constituents.Wood said he believed that term limits weakens the legislative body while strengthening the judicial and executive branches and the lobbyists.

He said he would consider running for the state senate after Mary Ann Salmon is term limited, depending on redistricting and other variables. “We’ll wait and see,” he said. Wood, a lawyer in the National Guard’s JAG corps, frequently sponsored legislation helpful to Arkansas soldiers.

“I really enjoyed in getting the income tax exemption raised from $6,000 to $10,000 for enlisted men and officers,” he said. “I like working more behind the scenes to get the bill passed.

He sponsored the military protection act, passed in 2005. He said when the new law passed by Congress takes effect on October 1, payday lenders will have to limit loans to military and their families to 36 percent.

Ironically, he said, his law was used as an excuse in the past to continue making high interest loans—several hundred percent in interest—to the military, so as to not discriminate against the military.

“I’m going to miss serving with Will (Bond) and Sandra (Prater),” he said. “I think we built a real strong relationship working together.”

SCHULTE

“This was a quiet session for me,” Schulte said. “I was excited to see the energy bill that Lindsley Smith passed. She said it should provide an incentive to chicken farmers to capture and burn the naturally occurring methane gas in used chicken litter to generate electricity for their own use and to sell back to power companies on the electric grid.

”I think over my three terms I’ve seen a progressively conservative legislature,” said Schulte, the area’s only Republican representative. “It’s been gratifying to see more pro-life bills have passed and that we were able to reduce taxes this time and to take care of some of the gaps we had in services with the surplus.

She said it was difficult for a small business owner like her to juggle the responsibilities of work and duty during the sessions, but, “I feel very lucky to have been able to do this--to see how government works. She said a beneficial aspect of term limits is that regular folks come in and “Have a hand protecting the government and changing it to be what they think it ought to be.”

She thinks the terms should be extended however. “We come in with so little knowledge and don’t have any kind of (institutional) memory. She said she’d be in favor of a constitutional amendment that would require the general assembly to meet annually, dealing with the budget the first year of the biennium and other matters on the second. “Whenever we enacted term limits, we didn’t understand the unintended consequences,” she said.


EVANS

Evans, who served about six years as Lonoke mayor prior to his election as state representative, says he favors term limits, but the current limits are too short.

He said the highlight of his terms in office was “Getting the schools situated. We should be through with Lakeview now.” He said he also was proud that legislators greatly reduced the tax on groceries. He said he also was proud of “Some of the stuff I voted against,” but didn’t elaborate. “This has been a very rewarding, humbling experience,” he said.