Regnat Populus plans lawsuit over petition restrictions | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Regnat Populus plans lawsuit over petition restrictions

Posted By on Thu, Apr 25, 2013 at 9:43 AM

Regnat Populus, the grassroots group that succeeded in putting its ethics initiative in a legislatively proposed constitutional amendment heading to the ballot in 2014, has circulated a statement touting its achievement and defending some of the items grafted onto that amendment to achieve legislative approval, particularly an extension of term limits and a mechanism to raise legislative pay.

There's news in the message of an expected lawsuit over efforts by the business lobby to curtail the ability of Arkansas voters to petition their government:

The now infamous SB 821, introduced by Sen. Ingram of West Memphis, was designed by the Southland/Oaklawn duopoly and the gas lobby to stymie the Ballot Initiative process itself because of Initiated Acts that were attempted in 2012 which would have presented competition/and or cut into profits for their respective businesses. SB 821 imposes restrictions on paid canvassers, makes rules that make it more difficult to petition and shortens the time allowed to petition. We believe SB 821 will be shown to be unconstitutional and are filing suit to fight this measure which infringes upon Arkansas citizens’ ability to petition through this cherished Citizen Initiated process.

Sadly, the legislature has also referred a constitutional amendment on petitions that would make it harder to cure petition drives that fall short at the initial deadline. It could hamper the process even if a lawsuit succeeds in striking the law.

On other subjects:

I take exception to Regnat Populus' benign view of the provision added by the Senate to continue to allow lobby-paid junkets. RP believes the provision allowing travel to conferences means only transportation costs, not food, lodging or other events (say golf tournaments) scheduled as part of the conferences. The amendment doesn't specify this definition of travel. "Travel" by any standard of government reimbursement routinely includes food, lodging, registration fees and other incidentals. We won't know until a court decides. I expect an early test. Legislators won't be traveling if they have to pay for hotels, meals and drinks. And they want to travel.

I also think Regnat Populus is naive in thinking its decision to allow free wining and dining of official groups can't and won't be abused. To continue to allow fancy swillathons for the whole legislature is pernicious enough. But the amendment allows banqueting for an event to which a "specific governmental body" is invited. What is a "governmental body?" The amendment definition [and it's more important than any previous law or rule] includes an "office" or "other establishment" of the "legislative branch." Got a truck? I see a loophole big enough for any lobbyist or legislator to drive an officeholder in the legislature through. Or the Payday Lenders Caucus, at least.

But for now celebrate some elements in the amendment that represent a step forward. The Regnat Populus message follows:

Dear Friends,
This legislative session has been a busy one and now that it has ended we can apprise you of the long process that culminated with the passage of the Arkansas Elected Officials Ethics, Transparency and Financial Reform Amendment of 2014 to be placed before the Arkansas voters in 2014.

In mid-February of this year, members of Regnat Populus were contacted by Rep. Warwick Sabin with regards to a proposed comprehensive ethics amendment that he wanted to introduce. During the following month, Paul Spencer and David Couch collaborated directly with Rep. Warwick Sabin and Sen. Jon Woods to produce the first iteration of the Arkansas Elected Officials Ethics, Transparency and Financial Reform Amendment of 2014.

During the chaotic final week of the legislative session there were some reactionary inaccuracies that were perpetuated about the Amendment and we would like to take this opportunity to present the process to you, our supporters.

This proposed amendment was initially introduced into Committee by Rep. Sabin (who repeated stressed that Regnat Populus was currently running a ballot initiative with a Class A misdemeanor that could possibly be invoked if a legislator took food or drink that was offered at a public gathering sponsored by a corporation and noted that our Ballot Initiatve “will all but certainly become law in 2014”). After some deliberation, the final product that was passed in Committee contained all three provisions of Regnat Populus’ Campaign Finance and Lobbying Act of 2014. The first two provisions, a complete ban on direct corporate contributions to Constitutional Officers and members of the General Assembly and an increase in the “revolving door” (through which a legislator becomes a lobbyist) from one year to two years remained unchanged.

The third provision, the gift ban from lobbyists to legislators was modified with three exceptions:

1) Anything of value that is readily available to the general public. (A member of the general assembly can take a free sample at Wal-Mart or Riverfest without fear of prosecution.)

2) Food or drink available at a planned activity to which a specific governmental body or identifiable group of public servants is invited.

“Specific governmental body” is a term that is defined in existing law in Arkansas and other states and is the subject of an opinion of the Arkansas Ethics Commission.

A lobbyist cannot, as it has been suggested, select certain members of the General Assembly and invite them to dinner at Doe’s. Examples of identifiable groups would be the entire Senate Judiciary Committee or the House State Agencies Committee — every committee member would have to be invited. With the well-defined parameters of this limitation, we felt it was a legitimate issue on which to compromise.

Please note that the usual lobbyist-sponsored daily lunch and dinner during the legislative session and even a CUP OF COFFEE are still explicitly banned with this legislation. These prohibitions will fundamentally change the culture of “business-as-usual” at the Capitol.

3) 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.

This permits an organization to pay for TRAVEL to a regional or national conference. It does NOT allow for the payment of any additional expenses like lodging, food or drink, or golf outings (or JUNKETS as has been suggested). While this was not included in our preliminary discussions and was added at the last minute by the Senate, we don’t believe it should be a deal-breaker. The exception is narrow and limited. While the way it was included was disturbing, we don’t believe that it should have caused us to denounce the entire amendment, whose reforms are sorely needed in Arkansas.

In addition to our original proposal, Rep. Sabin and Sen. Woods brought up two other proposals-modifications of term limits and the establishment of a Citizens’ Commission to establish legislator pay. Regnat Populus considered these additions to be good government measures and have the effect of limiting outside influence in the political process (inexperienced legislators needing to rely on lobbyists’ broad knowledge of the legislative process) and can actually create a situtation in which more people (not just the retired or independently wealthy) can be involved in public service by being paid a living wage. Regnat Populus’ position is that the three exceptions made to our original Act were worthwhile compromises to have such a bold and comprehensive initiative presented to the people at the ballot box.

After the Amendment was voted upon and passed by the entire House, Rep. Sabin and Sen. Woods still took into consideration suggestions made by Scott Trotter, a former activist with Common Cause in Arkansas ethics reforms in the past, and heroically worked through the last weekend before the end of the session with David Couch and Paul Spencer (with much thanks to Matt Miller from the Bureau of Legislative Research) to further tighten up the language and close loopholes that were not previously foreseen.

Of the final changes to HJR 1009, Scott Trotter noted “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.” These amendments were then REINTRODUCED and were, in the end passed by both houses and signed by Governor Beebe on April 22nd.

Unfortunately, we suffered some legislative set-backs as well. The now infamous SB 821, introduced by Sen. Ingram of West Memphis, was designed by the Southland/Oaklawn duopoly and the gas lobby to stymie the Ballot Initiative process itself because of Initiated Acts that were attempted in 2012 which would have presented competition/and or cut into profits for their respective businesses. SB 821 imposes restrictions on paid canvassers, makes rules that make it more difficult to petition and shortens the time allowed to petition. We believe SB 821 will be shown to be unconstitutional and are filing suit to fight this measure which infringes upon Arkansas citizens’ ability to petition through this cherished Citizen Initiated process.

In conclusion, Regnat Populus is pleased that the people of Arkansas will have the opportunity to approve the Arkansas Elected Officials Ethics, Transparency and Financial Reform Amendment of 2014 in about 18 months. It was a very long journey to get to this point. We would like to take the opportunity to first of all thank YOU, our many supporters.

Those of you who donated money which allowed us to print copies of petition sheets, pay for gas, supplies, etc. in our initial efforts, those of you who canvassed from Eureka Springs to Texarkana in punishing heat and were threatened with arrest and still came back day after day, also travelling to far away counties-you made the political system stand up and pay attention to an authentic movement for reform arising from the people.

To Brent Bumpers who single-handedly got many of his influential friends and associates to form into a cohesive group called Better Ethics Now to financially back our efforts culminating with a large fund-raiser at Rep. Vic Snyder’s house (to whom we are also very greatful) and demonstrated the political will of those within Arkansas politics for these reforms. It is all of these efforts that gave us the credibility to be taken VERY seriously at the legislative session this year.

And lastly, to Rep. Warwick Sabin (D-Little Rock) and Sen. Jon Woods (R-Springdale) who initiated this legislation, then took the public brunt of loud and sarcastic criticism, and then worked tirelessly to perfect this Amendment along with Matt Miller and Scott Trotter up to the last minute in order present the best piece of legislation possible to the Arkansas voter in 2014, we thank you.

Regnat Populus is pleased that this Amendment now has a chance to accomplish the goal of a government that is more responsive to the needs of its citizens than the wishes of special interests. These changes being passed in the legislative session will now free up Regnat Populus to continue to work on new and exciting future ventures in the upcoming election cycle that will build upon our belief that in Arkansas, THE PEOPLE should RULE.

Stay tuned! The best is yet to come!

David Couch and Paul Spencer
Co-Chairs

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