Saturday, April 6, 2013

The price of ethics: more payola for Arkansas legislators

Posted By on Sat, Apr 6, 2013 at 9:50 AM

ETHICS LEADER: Warwick Sabin leads the so-called ethics reform amendment. It comes bearing gifts for legislators.
  • 'ETHICS' LEADER: Warwick Sabin leads the so-called ethics reform amendment. It comes bearing gifts for legislators.
I reported yesterday that a constitutional amendment modestly addressing state ethics law was approved by both the House and Senate committees that clear the three proposed constitutional amendments that the legislature may send to voters every two years.

A key sponsor is former colleague and reliably progressive Hillcrest Democratic Rep. Warwick Sabin. An advocate of the cause is Paul Spencer, who's labored long and hard for the grassroots Regnant Populus group to initiatie ethics reform.

I credit them with the best of intentions. The measure contains some advancements.

* It bans corporate contributions to political campaigns. It is unclear, however, if it bans the slimy practice perfected by Republicans in 2012 by which unopposed legislators sitting on fat campaign accounts spread the money around to other candidates. It's wrong. It's an end-run around campaign limits because special interests can load up candidates with money they'll in turn pass on to candidates who've already received maximum contributions from the same special interests.

* It forces public officials to wait two years, rather than one, to become a paid lobbyist after working for lobby interests as a legislator in hopes of future work. But ... The current batch of legislators is not covered by this new rule unless they are elected again in 2014. So, big whoop. Current legislators can continue to head to the lobby after a year off.

* It supposedly bans gifts by lobbyists to lawmakers. But, a last-minute addition to the measure created a loophole big enough to drive a corporate jet and a Rolls Royce through, along with an addition to the amendment from existing law that is widely abused.

FIRST: If I'm reading the various amendments correctly, lawmakers still may partake of "food or drink available at a planned activity to which a specific governmental body or identifiable group of public servants is invited." This was NOT part of the Regnat Populus proposal.

Let us say Stephens Inc. invites the Republican members of the Insurance and Commerce Committee to dinner in the Capital Hotel wine cellar. This "identifiable" group of legislators may freely partake, right?

Let us say the Electric Co-op, Entergy, some big insurance companies and other corporate interests pay so that members of the legislature may attend a big dinner honoring the House speaker, with lobbyists on hand to kiss the right rings. Wouldn't they still be able to freely partake?

There are so many ways to slice and dice "identifiable groups" that I don't see a way in the world the amendment would prevent a lobbyist from hosting, say, those State Agencies members still undecided on the tort reform amendments from convening in the backroom of Doe's for martinis, steaks and cabernet.

It would give constitutional protection to hog slopping.

* But this isn't even the worst exception thrown into this amendment Get a load of this 11th-hour exception, pushed into the amendment by a Republican leader:

(vi) Payments by regional or national organizations for travel to regional or national conferences at which the State of Arkansas is requested to be represented by a person or persons elected to an office under subsection (a) of this section;

Free junkets to Turkey? Keep them coming. All's needed is a formal invitation for the state to send a representative. You may be sure special interests have some letterhead stationery for the invites. The proper legislative officials will know which individual members would be best able to represent the state in New York, San Francisco, Paris or wherever.

Once more: If a conference is important to the state, the state should pay to send someone to attend, not grovel for handouts.

Ethics amendment? I call it the Junket Amendment. Woefully lacking, too, is any protections that would assure the hog slopping and junketing get fully reported to the public.

The continuation of hog slopping is not the real reason that parasitic legislators like Sen. Jon Woods jumped on this bandwagon. The bigger reasons are much more important:

1) The amendment provides the tools for pay raises for legislators outside the political arena. It would turn public official pay raises over to a citizens commission. They are fully expected to look at the low level of official pay and readily recommend higher pay for these hard-working public servants (many of them not otherwise employed). A majority of the members of this commission will be appointed by leaders of the legislature. Unlike the lobbying provision, put off effectively for two years, this baby will be put into motion 45 days after adoption. Pay raises will be self-executing. The legislature need not vote on them and give opponents campaign fodder.

2) Term limits. With an arcane exception related to decennial redistricting, members are currently limited to six years of service in the House and eight in the Senate. This amendment would give legislators a 16-year term limit, however they'd like to use it. Can you say potentate? A legislator can commit to a full 16-year run in either the House or Senate, by which time they'd be modern-day versions of the long-serving dinosaurs of the pre-term limits days like Knox Nelson and Max Howell. I opposed term limits. I still oppose term limits. But this is a way to give the new majority Republicans an effective end-run around term limits without seeming to do so. Of course the new limits apply to currently serving members, not just those elected in 2014 and beyond, as with the lobbying restriction. Pick your worst nightmare for a 16-year run in the House or Senate, say a Nate Bell or Bryan King. Imagine what such bullies could do after accruing that sort of tenure.

Bottom line: Turns out serving in the legislature is pretty sweet when you have power. What's not to like about a proposal that allows you to serve longer, make more money at it and keep the junkets and special interest dinners coming? Particularly when you can tell the voters it's all in the name of "Ethics Reform."

Remind me again what's being traded off for this.

I hate dropping any rain on the diligent work by good people on a tough subject. I favor higher pay for legislators and an end to term limits. But I don't think they've traded off enough in this measure to earn these significant benefits.

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