Sunday, April 14, 2013

Ethics update: Amending the amendment

Posted By on Sun, Apr 14, 2013 at 8:39 AM

I've done some emoting on the blog and in my column about the proposed constitutional amendment, SJR 9, crafted by Rep. Warwick Sabin and others to incorporate some of the Regnat Populus ethics initiative into a multi-pronged proposal with some benefits for legislators.

Maybe ranting is a better word than emoting.

I felt the tradeoffwas no bargain for the public. Legislators would have to give up corporate contributions to individual campaigns (though not to PACs). Lobbyists would be restricted in gifts to legislators, whether it be George Strait tickets or lunches at Doe's.

But ... the amendment provides constitutional protection for lobby wining and dining, so long as clearly identifiable groups are invited to the hogslops. The whole House. The whole Senate. All of a critical committee. And who knows what other identifiable groups could be identified — the Black Caucus, the Republican Caucus, the Shale Caucus, the God Caucus? The provision inserted to protect legislators' mealtime pleasure (not a feature of the Regnat Populus initiative) guarantees continuation of the nightly special interest feeds that are a standard feature of a legislative session. General public not invited.

The amendment also provides constitutional protection of travel junkets provided by lobbyists or groups affiliated with lobbyists, so long as a formal invite to the state is issued. This is another loophole begging for a highballing wide load to barrel through.

Also: The amendment sets up a commission (with majority of seats controlled by the legislature) to vote pay raises for legislators, judges and statewide elected officials. This provides all of the desired pay raises with none of the political guilt that comes from the legislature having to set its own pay.

Also: The amendment significantly waters down term limits, giving a legislator the ability to serve 16 years in a single chamber. Time enough to become very powerful.

In a session where constitutional amendments have had rough sledding — even the chamber of commerce lost a tort reform amendment drive — this one has met wide approval. The pay raise and term limit dilution have plenty to do with it. Few public criticisms have been registered.

But Scott Trotter, a Little Rock lawyer who worked with Common Cause when the state approved an ethics initiative decades ago, did have objections last week

He listed them in this memo.

At first, it appeared it was too late in the process to address any of Trotter's concerns. But Sabin went to work on it.

There's now an amended proposal here.

The Senate committee will consider the amended version next week. That's always perilous. Some of the sleazier lobbyists have really been raising hell about even the modest limitations this proposal would put on their routines. They could derail the measure yet.

Trotter, having seen the revision, has given sponsors a statement that says in part:

“The amendments result in substantial improvement to HJR 1009 that include (a) enhanced restrictions on gifts from lobbyists to public officials, (b) the potential for adoption of needed adjustments to the salaries of state officials and judges through a measured process open to the public, and (c) the revision and inclusion of definitions and other terms that clarify and strengthen the key provisions of HJR 1009.

Significantly, I'd note, the changes don't address a problem Trotter cited. The amendment removes a constitutional provision on per diem and expenses from the Constitution and leaves these matters to the legislature. The legislature has a rich history of abusing per diem and expenses as a means of salary supplement. Why not turn per diem over to the pay commission, too, Trotter had asked? Why not indeed?

The revisal tightens some definitions on lobbying to cover all bases of sources of gifts. It adds some language to encourage transparency in the salary commission's actions, specifically FOI application. It would limit terms of the pay commission to two terms.

I had a long chat with Warwick, a former colleague and friend, about the effort Saturday. He's had the frustrating experience of being banged from many different directions. I've never doubted his good intentions or those of the others working on the measure, including backers of Regnat Populus. It is true the amendment makes some small ethical steps forward. Trotter's suggestions have produced technical improvements.

I'm trying hard not to be reflexively negative. But it is only fact that the amendment remains a proposal that eases term limits, provides a political escape route for legislative pay raises and provides constitutional protection for lobby-paid legislative banqueting and travel junkets. The givebacks, particularly on term limits, may make it harder to pass and thus again kill some modest ethics advancements.

Lobbyists are said to be unhappy about the proposal. That's definitely a point in its favor.

But there's this:

You know how all the Republicans in favor of Medicaid expansion are telling Democrats and liberal columnists to shut up and stop saying they support the "private option" plan? How their support is a disincentive to holdout Republicans?

I feel the same way about hearing that legislators support something called an "ethics" amendment.

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