Ethics, schmethics: Legislators keep junketing | Arkansas Blog

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Ethics, schmethics: Legislators keep junketing

Posted By on Sun, Mar 27, 2016 at 8:04 AM


The vaunted ethics amendment to the state Constitution has been a sore disappointment. It produced: 1) a near tripling of legislative pay; 2) little decline in legislative expense submissions; 3) longer terms in office, and 4) multiple workarounds of the limit placed on lobbyists' buying drinks and food for lawmakers. The last legislative session free food and drink was on offer from morning to night most major business days.

Reporting today by Michael Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette also illustrated the failure of the amendment's  restriction on lobby-paid junkets. As I've written before, ethics guru Sen. Jon Woods added a little old clarifying provision to the amendment that allows legislators to attend "educational" meetings of national groups. Thus, a group of them attended the American Legislative Exchange Council session (a Koch-backed conservative lobby group that pushes cookie cutter legislation through statehouses) in San Diego and the loophole is written expansively enough that lobbyists may attend these session and throw expensive dinners for the Arkansas delegation.

Wickline went down the list of free travel reported by legislators in 2015 — France, Israel, China and multiple U.S. destinations. Legislators assured ever so gravely that these were purely educational trips and not sponsored by lobbyists, but by private foundations doing the public's good.

Well, let's examine the sources a little more closely than Wickline had space to do.

Sens.  Linda Collins-Smith and Bryan King and Rep. Josh Miller and Grant Hodges enjoyed a junket to Florida courtesy of the Foundation for Government Accountability.  A 501C3 it might be, but check the Source Watch link. It operates like a right-wing advocacy group, with achievements such as the welfare drug-testing law struck down in a Florida court (sound familiar?) among its achievements. It has ties to numerous right-wing groups. Somewhere at the secretive bottom is big money from Kochs and their ilk. None dare call this lobbying.

Then there's the Foundation for Excellence in Eduction, which Reps. Nate Bell, Karilyn Brown, Jim Dotson, Ken Henderson, Grant Hodges and Laurie Rushing used for a junket to Denver. This is a Jeb Bush creation.  It has many of the same backers and shares staff with ALEC. Its big underwriters are for-profit education players. Charter and virtual school operators and sellers of testing materials are among the big underwriters. More here from Source Watch.

Reps. Charlie Collins and Robin Lundstrom got a week in Israel courtesy of the American Israel Education Foundation. It is a sister organization of AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby. You don't have to search hard to find critics who say the aim of the education foundation is propaganda, with little presented from the Palestinian end of the fraught Middle East situation.

Then there's Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce's point man in the Arkansas legislature. He got a $5,600 junket to China sponsored by the State Legislative Leaders Foundation. Here's how Truthout referred to that group, among other special interest groups working nominally as nonprofits to influence state legislators:

Though not directly responsible for any policy positions, per se, the State Legislative Leaders Foundation (SLLF), with an annual budget in the $2.5 to $3 million range, can best be described as a corporate-funded tutelage academy for majority and minority state-level legislative leaders nationwide.

.. it does not accept public funding or members dues, and that all of its funding, without exception, comes from "contributions from the private sector, registration fees, and grants and contracts with governmental agencies and philanthropic foundations."

The SLLF Advisory Council consists of scores of multinational corporations.

A big business influence group, in other words.

I could go on. Rep. Warwick Sabin, an ethics amendment sponsor, and Rep. Clarke Tucker, got a trip courtesy of a progressive group, The New DEAL. Something called the Senate Presidents Forum sent Sen. Jonathan Dismang to France. Its sponsors: Big pharma, insurance companies, tobacco companies and other blue ribbon corporate underwriters.

Poor people, it should be noted, don't prop up many foundations offering free trips to conferences at exciting locales.

This reporting comes, by the way, amid indications that Gov. Asa Hutchinson seems unlikely to throw in on ethics improvement legislation this session (not even as a small tip to Democrats who'll do right on continuing Obamacare while many Republicans will not). Why? The NRA won't stand for required disclosure of its judicial campaign spending sources,  nor will the Family Council hate group. And other Republicans — think Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin -- are complaining about how out-of-date Arkansas ethics laws are. Why, he can't raise money for re-election full-time, as members of Congress do. Thank goodness.

Surely he could find a nonprofit educational foundation to hold a conference on this somewhere to come up with legislative solutions.  Hawaii is nice this time of the year.

Whatever you call it, don't call it ethics "reform."

One final observation: If these trips truly are educational and valuable, the state should pay for them as a legitimate business expense and no legislator should fear turning in the expense voucher.

PPS — I confess that some legislators remain unhappy that the ethics amendment HAS cut off foreign government-paid trips. Surely  Taiwan and Co. can soon figure out ways to set up foundations that can resume these junkets for world-traveling Arkie legislators.

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