Stiffer ethics and the new legislative gravy train | Arkansas Blog

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Stiffer ethics and the new legislative gravy train

Posted By on Sun, Nov 9, 2014 at 8:42 AM

Attention on the unexpected adoption of Issue 3 — the ethics/pay/term limits amendment — has focused so far mostly on the loosening of term limits and the shock and awe of lobbyists and legislators being cut cold turkey Nov. 5 from the wining-and-dining merry-go-round.

Yes, the amendment took effect the day after the election and it ended ANY gifts by lobbyists to lawmakers except at "planned" events to which official governmental bodies had been invited — the entire membership of the Insurance and Commerce Committee, for example, not just the bell cows of such a body.

But the next big event is appointment of the independent commission that will set the pay of constitutional officers, legislators and judges. It must be appointed in 30 days — two each by the governor, Senate president pro tem and House speaker and one by the chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. I wouldn't expect anyone to appoint a Tea Party type who thinks public officials are already overpaid.

This group will review current pay and in 90 days suggest adjustments. Though in future years pay raises will be limited to 15 percent — and pay in some cases can be cut, too — there is NO LIMIT on the first round of recommendations. The money will not be appropriated by the legislature, but come off the top of the constitutional officers fund. Thus, no legislator can be blamed for a whopping huge pay raise provided by an "independent" commission (that their leaders appointed).

This group also can make recommendations on per diem and expenses.

Wild rumors are circulating about what's in the mill. I've heard anything from $54,000 legislative pay to $120,000. One correspondent said the people wouldn't stand for outrageous increases. Here's the beauty of it from the legislators' point of view — the people can howl all they want. They can do nothing, except pass another constitutional amendment, something that was made even harder by voters this year.

Legislative pay limits of $14,000 or so are meaningless. Lawmakers already make about $50,000 a year between salary and per diem claims (claims that include days in which they are not at the Capitol working and so amount to thinly disguised pay supplements anyway). Many of them also put their spouses on the taxpayers'  payroll for about $15,000 a year by another subterfuge that provides money for expenses of office. So pay won't be the only issue in these coming deliberations. If lawmakers get a huge pay increase — plus are allowed to continue to draw flat per diem for expenses they don't incur and are allowed to employ relatives through LLCs as another supplement, they will jump into the high income echelons in Arkansas. I don't think that's what voters had in mind when they approved this amendment. I also don't think most knew they were loosening term limits either.

At least when the legislators celebrate their huge pay increases and longer years to enjoy these perks, lobbyists won't be picking up the bar tab. (Well, the lobbyists could schedule a party to which they invited all 135 members of the General Assembly to celebrate their new income status.)

You'll want to study this extensive new amendment.  
Lots of details. I'd note this: When a legislator claims he or she can do nothing about the independent commission's work, that's not wholly accurate. The portion that sets out that commission's duties can be amended by the legislature by supermajority vote. So you'd hope if the group recommended a pay raise that shocked voters' consciences, legislators would move swiftly to rein in the profligate spenders on this "independent" commission.

This is one of the reasons I was conflicted about a measure with some useful ethical changes. Pay should be higher, but not if it comes with continued abusive expense practices and the continued ability of legislators to put kinfolk on their payroll. Legislators should fade the heat for their pay. Vote for what they think they deserve — no more or less. Man up.

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