House Democrats roll out ethics ideas | Arkansas Blog

Monday, September 23, 2013

House Democrats roll out ethics ideas

Posted By on Mon, Sep 23, 2013 at 10:33 AM

Those talks on ethical issues took on more concrete form this morning. The House Democratic Caucus floated its ideas for strengthening ethics laws and invited Republicans to join the movement. Will Republicans think the majority should hold the prerogative for floating initiatives? Or will they join? I do know that some important Republicans are concurrently at work on the same topic, so maybe there is a path to stronger laws beneficial to all, partisanship notwithstanding.

The release:

A special committee formed by the House Democratic Caucus is inviting Republican colleagues to join them in crafting a legislative ethics package that includes ending the practice of using campaign funds for ticketed political events, prohibiting multiple campaign contributions for corporations controlled by the same majority owner, empowering the Ethics Commission to pro-actively review campaign finance reports when filed, increasing the penalties for violations of ethics laws, and creating a more transparent and navigable finance report database that is accessible to the public.

"For the last few weeks my colleagues and I have worked diligently to review current ethics policy and where our laws fall short of maintaining the public’s trust in Arkansas’ government,” said committee chairman Brent Talley (D-Hope). “Democrats and Republicans must work together to end loopholes created by backroom politics and support more transparency in our government."

Representative Mary Broadaway (D- Paragould) believes her colleagues should work together to present a legislative package during the next session that would hold all elected officials to a higher standard. "It is critical that we come together to have an honest and open discussion on setting a higher standard for all elected officials to follow."

Members in Democratic House Caucus who serve on the committee are Rep. Mary Broadaway (D-Paragould), Rep. Harold Copenhaver (D-Jonesboro), Rep. George McGill (D- Ft. Smith), Rep. Jim Nickels (D-Sherwood), Rep. James Ratliff (D- Imboden), Rep. Warwick Sabin (D- Little Rock), Rep. Brent Talley (D- Hope), and Rep. Marshall Wright (D- Forrest City). Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) and Sen. Bruce Maloch (D- Magnolia) recently joined the committee.

During the recently-completed legislative session, Sen. Maloch and Rep. Sabin co-sponsored legislation that would have ended the practice of using campaign funds for ticketed political events and prohibited multiple campaign contributions for corporations controlled by the same majority owner (SB59 and SB109).

The next legislative session is a fiscal session. It would take an extraordinary vote to open the agenda to ethics bills. There's also a chance of a special session on teachers' insurance and Republicans have told me they're open to the idea of putting ethics on the agenda if there's a consensus package. Gov. Mike Beebe reportedly has expressed similar sentiment privately.

As for the specifics listed above: They sound good. Already pending on the agenda is a proposed constitutional amendment for the 2014 ballot that would prohibit lobbyist gifts and meals to legisators (though it would preserve group wining and dining and certain junketing) and prohibit corporate contributions to political campaigns, while setting up a mechanism for easier legislative pay raises and allowing legislators longer terms in office.

PS — For those not familiar with the dark arts of campaign finance, a "ticketed event" is a scam devised to evade the Ethics Commission rule against use of campaign contributions to give to another candidate's campaign. Under the theory that a candidate might get campaign benefit from attending another person's fund-raiser, the "ticketed event" exception was invented. If there's an event legitimate enough to have a ticket with a price (all you need its a printer) and legislators gather at a care, they can swap checks among each other. Republicans perfected this by having multiple candidates beneficiaries of ticketed events. A Republican legislator like John Burris or Andrea Lea — unopposed and term limited — would write multiple checks to different candidates for the campaign "benefit" of attending these "ticketed events." Democrats have engaged in the practice, too.

MISSING: Something to address carryover money. I doubt it can be eliminated (my preference), but fund-raising after filing closes for unopposed candidates and term-limited candidates heading back to office needs to be addressed (plus how that many is spent). Better access to unitemized spending would also be nice.

UPDATE: House Republicans responded with a news release. It invites the Democrats to join THEM. So, already, I sense some political posturing. I hope both sides can get past that. Because Majority Leader Bruce Westerman professes interest in some of the same ideas Democrats have embraced and includes an improvement, notably lowering the threshold for expenditure reporting.

Among the reform proposals currently being discussed by the Arkansas Republican House Caucus are:

Mandatory electronic filing of Campaign Contribution & Expenditure (CC&E) Reports
Reducing or eliminating the reporting threshold for expenditures
Eliminating “ticketed events”
Addressing surplus carryover funds and how they are to be handled after an election

I cheer them both. Let's get this done. (It's a little snotty for Republicans to blame Democrats for any shortcomings that might exist given that much of the existing law arises from a voter initiative. And the need for an end to ticketed events was never more sharply illustrated than by 2012 Republican abuses. But OK, each side wants to position itself as the ethical leader. Each as done so. Now put that aside and work for the common interest of good government.)

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