Ethics panel: Where were the ethicists? | Arkansas Blog

Monday, December 8, 2014

Ethics panel: Where were the ethicists?

Posted By on Mon, Dec 8, 2014 at 2:09 PM

TALKING ETHICS: Missing from today's panel, a firebrand, unconflicted believer in strong government ethics. - TWITTER/CLINTON SCHOOL
  • Twitter/Clinton School
  • TALKING ETHICS: Missing from today's panel, a firebrand, unconflicted believer in strong government ethics.

The Clinton School and the Political Animals put on a panel about the constitutional amendment that will give legislators a pay raise, allow them to serve longer in office and perhaps put some limits on direct spending on them by lobbyists.

I was detained by a meeting at which a group in which I participate talked about the legislature's insistence that it should continue to be allowed to claim per diem — or expense reimbursement — for days they don't go to work at the Capitol. They've been running up hundreds of thousands in payments for expenses they don't incur.

But I see afterward that the panel included Randy Zook, head of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, whose members lavish vast sums to elect people that vote the corporate agenda; Scott Trotter, once a Common Cause activist, but who was reportedly resistant in the early days to this ethics measure and who now does a lot of work for utility companies; Sen. Jon Woods, a legislator without a full-time day job who got on board this measure so he could get more years in office at higher pay, and my former colleague Rep. Warwick Sabin, who I credit with trying to carry the Regnat Populus banner for good government, but who got somewhat rolled by the play-pretties desired by legislators like Woods. No ethics measure would have passed without the ease on term limits and higher pay.

Funny thing. The amendment passed anyway, despite the looser term limits. Now there's a no-gifts rule for lobbyists, potentially a good thing. But they are madly scheming on work-arounds for this already. They'll strangle the Ethics Commission budget, if necessary, to be sure that agency codifies the rules in the most forgiving way possible. And there's no prohibiting larceny. Limits on legislators that already existed should have stopped them from charging meals and drinks to lobbyist credit cards, but it didn't, for example.

But the first order of business is the independent pay commission, which should raise the pay for legislators, state officials and judges in the next two months. I, for one, am not ready to say legislators are entitled to a big pay raise if they keep the fraudulent  expense payments they are now getting, including assistant pay to spouses. Some statewide offices — lieutenant governor, particularly — don't need a pay raise. Auditor and treasurer are likewise ministerial jobs that don't need giant increases. Our pay for attorney general isn't far below that of some similar states, and so on.

But the real problem is that the Commission, which may set pay, may only recommend expense procedures. The legislature is free to ignore what they recommend and go their merry way. History says they will do that unless sued, as the Arkansas Public Law Center did a few years back. That produced some reforms, but not enough.

Too bad Regnat Populus didn't have a representative on today's panel. 

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