Monday, February 23, 2015

Today's freebies: Neither rain nor snow …..

Posted By on Mon, Feb 23, 2015 at 7:32 AM


If legislators are in town, you may be sure lobbyists will be on hand to feed them, despite Amendment 94's ban on gifts. Just deem cocktail hour a "scheduled activity" and who's to stop the free drinks from pouring? Not the state Ethics Commission, that much is clear.

I wouldn't think a light snow would stop today's activities either.

Longer years in office, higher pay and freebies — plus per diem for days not worked — it is a tough life. One of the big questions of the year is whether five days of per diem will roll unabated between recess of the session April 10 and the wrap-up in May. And why do they need to meet through April, a full month past the 60-day Constitutional limit, anyway?

To pass more junk about Sharia law? To further enable discrimination against gay people? To further encumber medical rights of women?

I noted in a Democrat-Gazette legislative roundup this morning a suggestion from a well-meaning senator to hold up the pay raises for legislators, judges and others soon to be finalized by the independent citizens commission established by Amendment 94. This was Sen. Jon Woods' crafty idea to give himself a pay raise that couldn't be blamed on a legislative vote.

Pains me though it does to say, the matter of the pay raise is out of the legislature's hands. To attempt to block it would be to violate the Constitution. Says the Legislative Gravy Train Amendment:

(e)(1) The salaries of the positions under subsection (d) of this section:

(A) Shall not be subject to appropriation by the General Assembly; and

(B) Shall be paid from the Constitutional Officers Fund or its successor fund or fund accounts in the amount determined by the independent citizens commission.

(3) Upon satisfying (e)(2)(A)(i)-(iii) of this section, the independent citizens commission may file the adjusted salary with the Auditor of State.

(4) An adjustment to a salary shall be effective ten (10) days after it is filed with the Auditor of State.

We're stuck. Drinks are on the nursing home lobby. Or somebody. Today's freebies:

COCKTAILS: 5-8 p.m., Next Level Events, Arkadelphia Regional Economic Development Alliance/Chamber of Commerce. (The regional alliance gets public tax support.)

COCKTAILS: 5-7 p.m., Capitol Square Apts. #4, Choo Choo Room. Bar tab on these lobbies:

Arkansas Automobile Dealers Association
Arkansas Hospital Association
Arkansas Medical Society
Arkansas Pharmacists Association
Arkansas Podiatric Medical Association
Arkansas State Dental Association
Independent Insurance Agents of Arkansas
Pfizer, Inc.
Arkansas Community Colleges

DINNER, DEVOTIONAL, PRAYER: 6-7:30 p.m., House RM 19, Capitol Commission (a group that encourages religion in public life; unknown if gay people may be excluded from this meeting.)

DINNER AND DRINKS; 5:30 p.m., Cache, Mullenix and Associates. This is a meeting of the House Rules Committee, another of those bogus "scheduled activities" by which lobbyists, thanks to a silent Ethics Commission, have arranged to keep freebies flowing to select and vital legislators. House Rules is particularly appropriate, because it handles booze legislation. (Also tobacco and gambling.) Mullenix clients include the state's publicly paid judges. Their list:

Altria Client Services Inc.
Arkansas Blue Cross & Blue Shield
Arkansas Realtors Association
Realtor Trade Association
Cisco Systems, Inc.
Express Scripts, Inc
Insurance Auto Auctions
Kaplan Fox & Kilsheimer LLP
LeBonheur Children's Medical Center
McDonald's Corporation
MCNA Health Care Holdings LLC
Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation
Oaklawn Jockey Club
Property Casualty Insurance Associaton of America
Plains Pipeline, L.P.
Rural AR Telephone Systems
Rave Mobile Safety
SAP Public Services, Inc
Stephens Group
Stephens Production Company
Superior Senior Care
Unisyn Voting Solutions
Wilson & Associates PLLC
Arkansas Judicial Council
Big River Steel

DINNER: 6 p.m., Brave New Restaurant, Arkansas Insurance Coalition. This is for a meeting of the House Insurance and Commerce Committee, another of those bogus "scheduled activities" by which lobbyists, thanks to a silent Ethics Commission, have arranged a way to keep freebies flowing to select and vital legislators.

All scheduled activities — as official meetings of the General Assembly and its official committees, are open to the public. The Constitution does not require that John Q. Public be fed, however.

UPDATE: A state employee unhappy about the gravy train copied me on a letter he's sent to the independent citizens commission, which sets pay and makes recommendations on expenses. Some good points follow:

Dear Citizen's Commission:

I am writing today with a concern about an upcoming issue before you: legislative pay. I understand the recent passage of Amendment 94 calls for legislators to receive an increased salary. I have no issue or challenge to an incremental pay inrease for legislators. However, I do have an objection to legislators' per diem.

I am a State employee as well as a taxpayer. As a State employee, I must follow the GSA table for reimbursement amounts. As a State employee, I am not allowed to claim per diem for meals unless I spend the night. As a State employee, I am only allowed to claim the exact amount of my expenses and I must produce receipts when I claim per diem. As a State employee, I am not allowed to claim per diem on meals when the purpose of my travel (meeting, conference, etc.) provides a meal. Looking at the list of "Scheduled Activities" on the daily calendar, there are breakfasts, lunches, and dinners on a near daily basis for legislators. As a State employee, I am not allowed to claim per diem on alcohol. There should be a required sign-in sheet at each of these "Scheduled Activities" and if a legislator attends, they should not be allowed to claim the per diem.

As a taxpayer, I agree with the above rules I am required to follow. I think rules, accountability, and receipts keeps State employees honest and good stewards of tax dollars. Therefore, I am HIGHLY OFFENDED that our legislators are claiming a daily per diem on travel, lodging, mileage, and meals when they are in fact not traveling, not lodging, and are not out ANY expense.

Theft. This behavior amounts to nothing less than theft. When legislators are NOT out any expense but are claiming a per diem they are in fact stealing from the taxpayer. This is my objection. Therefore, when you meet to discuss legislative pay, please adopt new rules requiring legislators to submit original receipts for their meals, lodging, and a mileage log showing the distance traveled. Also, please only reimburse them for actual out-of-pocket expenses.

I believe my request is not only reasonable, but should not even need to be requested. We are at a time when public trust of our elected officials is at a historic low. The public is at a point where they think "Why bother being engaged in the process? Our elected officials are only out for themselves." Please give the public a reason to believe otherwise.


Jason Henry

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