Ethics fight still on 

Friday was the deadline to submit signatures for initiated acts and constitutional amendments.

Four proposals cleared the initial hurdle but still must be verified as to legitimate signatures of registered voters. Two would grant exclusive casino permits; one would legalize medical use of marijuana, and one would increase the severance tax on natural gas.

The only petition drive motivated purely by principle failed to gather the 62,507 signatures necessary. It was the Regnat Populus 2012 ethics reform initiative, the brainchild of Catholic High teacher Paul Spencer. It would have ended direct corporate contributions to Arkansas political candidates, just as federal law prohibits such contributions. It would have imposed a so-called Walmart rule to outlaw gifts of any size to lawmakers, just as Walmart prohibits its employees from accepting gratuities from vendors. Finally, it would have set a two-year cooling-off period for lawmakers who want to become lobbyists. This would have invalidated the grandfather clause given to the current crop of term-limited legislators with plans to head straight to the lobby.

The ethics drive didn't fail on account of lack of enthusiasm. Only a corporate lobbyist or greedy legislator could oppose it. But the backers started late, with less than four months to gather signatures. They'd have fallen even shorter had not a bipartisan group of good-government angels raised at least $65,000 to pay a professional canvassing firm to gather signatures in the final six weeks of the effort.

The canvassing firm, Terra Strategies, provided optimistic assurances up until the day before the deadline, leaving some unhappy ethics campaigners when they didn't deliver. Paid canvassers got the job done in the other efforts.

Regnat Populus 2012 learned much in its failed labor — procedurally, politically and otherwise — during a blistering hot summer. It had to overcome efforts to block its canvassing in a public park at both Riverfest and, unbelievably, a celebration of Independence Day sponsored by the state's largest newspaper. Petition for ethics on July 4 in a public park? Not if the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette had anything to say about it.

Spencer announced the shortfall with a note of optimism. "With this wisdom and a redoubled resolve, we will emerge from the crucible, composed of a stronger alloy of solidarity and purpose, determination and longing."

Others, too, said the drive could set the stage, as early as the 2013 legislature, for strides forward in ethics. I hope they're right, though I'm pessimistic. Republicans were outspoken opponents of the measure. They live on corporate contributions. They sense a coming Republican majority and are anxious for the freebies that will come with greater power. Aware of how unseemly their whining about better ethics looked, some cooler Republican heads expressed an interest in ethics advancement after the drive failed, generally along the lines of support for full disclosure on contributions and expenditures.

It's empty rhetoric. Disclosure is already a failure. Witness all the ways lobbyists have found to evade full disclosure of their hog-slopping and the repeated failure of lawmakers to disclose free trips they've taken. Nor has any Republican yet called for full disclosure of the many ways in which money is spent independently in support of candidates. They like secrecy.

The silver lining is that legislative repudiation of ethics proposals inspired the last great step forward in Arkansas ethics law more than two decades ago. Should lawmakers stomp on the public spirited again, it might be just the tonic Regnat Populus needs to try an initiative again. With an earlier start.


Speaking of Paul Spencer, Regnat Populus 2012


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