The Big Swill: It includes unpublicized dining with lobbyists | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Big Swill: It includes unpublicized dining with lobbyists

Posted By on Thu, Jan 29, 2015 at 7:01 AM

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The party never ends for the Arkansas legislature.

It turns out that, despite Amendment 94's ban on gifts by lobbyists and their employers to legislators, there's been little abatement in free swill for lawmakers. I've been reporting daily events here, but I got details yesterday on another loophole the lobbyists have exploited in Amendment 94.

First, today's freebies that appear on the Senate and House calendars:

BREAKFAST, 7:30 a.m.-9 a.m., Capitol Hill Building, AARP.

LUNCH, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m., Catfish Farmers of Arkansas and the Arkansas Bait and Ornamental Fish Growers Association.

LUNCH, 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m., Capitol Square Apt. #13, Arkansas Health Care Association.

The legislature is in the process of giving the Ethics Commission powers granted under Amendment 94 to set and enforce ethics rules.

If we had a commission worthy of the name, the first thing they'd do is say daily free dining was not what Amendment 94 meant in the exception for "a planned activity to which a specific governmental body is invited." A daily lunch by the Health Care Association (nursing home lobby) in an apartment is a planned activity for a governmental body? It just sounds like free slop to me.

But it gets worse. Much worse.

I learned yesterday that, in addition to helpfully offering to "tweak" rules to make them more commodious, lobbyists also were circulating new rules about "planned activities" for legislative committees, also a government body. The lobbyists noted that these "events" are not published on the legislative websites.

Happily, the Bureau of Legislative Research, which is serving as the clearing house for wining and dining of legislators in need of freebies, still recognizes the Freedom of Information Act. Here's the list of "planned activities" held or scheduled so far this session:



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I credit House Speaker Jeremy Gillam for attempting to get some handle on this by setting rules that require advance scheduling and arrangement through the Bureau. Otherwise, you can imagine how easy it would be for Bruce Hawkins or Ted Mullenix or similar to know that only a critical quorum of a certain committee was in town — their pack horses on special interest legislation — and invite the whole committee to a spur-of-the-moment cocktail-and-steak fest. "planned activity" knowing that their targets would be the only ones likely to show up.

Gillam says he might make the committee events public eventually. He said, understandably, that things have been busy. He does defend these Committee dinners, however, more than I would. He sees them as important informational sessions to explain complex legislation. And nothing makes an explanation go down to more receptive ears than free drinks and food. It still looks a lot like influence purchasing to me and a good Ethics Commission would come up some more meaningful way to define a "planned activity" than an excuse for freebies.

Some lobbyists prefer to conduct business professionally. At the Capitol. By phone. By mail. By e-mail. Many of them welcomed tighter rules on gifts to lawmakers to be freed from demands of the greediest, some known for calling jp lobbyists for a credit card number to charge dinner. But if a three-month old "ethics" amendment is already being pushed out of shape, , it can only get worse. Credit cards will have to be dusted off by all.

You can look up clients of above lobbyists at the secretary of state's disclosure page.  Consumer Access is a coalition of grocery retailers who hope to expand the rule on selling wine in groceries beyond native and small-production wineries. FYI. I bet they won't be pouring Paisano at Brave New.

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