When Arkansas legislators gave voters a chance to approve a constitutional amendment banning corporate contributions and gifts from lobbyists, even the referendum’s sponsor thought it was doomed.  Why?  Because coupled with these reforms was a provision extending legislators’ term limits, a measure so unpopular that voters had previously rejected it by a 40-point margin.  Indeed, a committee opposing the referendum brought a 10-foot wooden horse to campaign events to help convince voters that the only real intention of the referendum was to get rid of term limits.

Whatever the motivations – which at times were hard to discern as the Republican legislature that placed the referendum on the ballot later passed a resolution to oppose it – the referendum passed last week with 53% of the vote.  It makes a number of important changes in Arkansas law, including: 

  • A ban on corporate and union contributions to state candidates (but PACs are not subject to this restriction).  Previously, corporations were subject to the same limit that applies to individuals: $2,000 per candidate per election.
  • A ban on gifts from state lobbyists, and those who employ or contract with them.  Styled as a no-cup-of-coffee rule, the ban only includes a few relatively narrow exceptions, including informational materials relevant to a person’s official duties, food or drink available at a planned activity to which a specific governmental body is invited, and payments for travel to certain conferences.
  • Legislators may serve no more 16 years in the same office, whether consecutive or nonconsecutive. Under prior law, legislators typically served no more than six years in the house and eight years in the Senate.
  • Former members of the Arkansas General Assembly are prohibited from registering as a lobbyist for two years after expiration of their elected terms. In Arkansas, a lobbyist is required to register if he or she receives income or reimbursement of more than $400 or spends more than $400 in a calendar year to influence official action.

The new constitutional provisions, which take effect immediately, will likely have a significant impact on state elections.  Among other things, they will empower campaign finance entities, such as PACs, which are still permitted to accept corporate contributions.  They may also prompt more corporate giving to Super PACs, which can run ads and organize get-out-the-vote efforts for candidates so long as such efforts are not coordinated with candidates or their campaigns.