A new move for a strong ethics law for Arkansas | Arkansas Blog

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

A new move for a strong ethics law for Arkansas

Posted By on Tue, Mar 29, 2016 at 7:28 AM

DAVID COUCH: A new ethics measure. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • DAVID COUCH: A new ethics measure.

Little Rock lawyer David Couch
has submitted a proposed constitutional amendment to strengthen the state ethics law for review by Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.

If recent past is a guide, Rutledge will dally in reviewing the measure and find much not to like about it because it is aimed at correcting all the damage done by the 2014 "ethics reform" amendment put on the ballot by the legislature and later amended into even thinner gruel by the Arkansas legislature.

If you read me, you know the story: The 2014 amendment — a compromise by good government forces and the legislature — has proved a sore disappointment. It provided legislators with longer terms and higher pay and, while seemingly reining in freebies from lobbyists, did nothing to stop free wining and dining, free junkets and Louis XIV-style dinners (public not invited) for the House speaker and Senate president financed by lobbyists. Much of the damage was done by legislative amendments in 2015 after voter adoption the previous November.

Couch says a broad coalition will soon announce more details about its campaign to pass this proposed amendment. He's not releasing details yet, but says it should have some poll numbers to offer on the public's support for stronger ethics law. I don't know if it includes the Better Ethics Committee formed by Brent Bumpers, Baker Kurrus, Jim Keet and others that made a belated unsuccessful run at an initiative campaign in 2012. That group was left with a surplus when their effort didn't clear the ballot on account of a late start.

But get a load of laudable goals of this amendment (which doesn't touch the term limit and pay portions):

* CONTRIBUTIONS: It would reduce the maximum campaign contribution per election from $2,700 to $1,500.

* PACS: Political action committees could no longer accept corporate contributions, only money from individuals. Corporate-funded PACs have become the preferred way to get around the ban on corporate contributions to individual campaigns. Politicians have set up PACs to facilitate the corporate flow.

* DARK MONEY: Any group that spends $2,000 on independent election activities would have to disclose the source of the money.  For now, they can get away with murder (no disclosure) if they avoid specific language such as "VOTE AGAINST."  The advertising would have to include disclosure of sponsors.

* FREEBIES: The amendment would put an end to any sort of gifts from lobbyists or entities that employ lobbyists. This would end the "scheduled event" exception by which the legislature was wined and dined daily during the last legislative session whenever all members of a particular body were invited to an event. It would end the junkets provided by "educational foundations" that amount to thinly disguised special interest lobbies.

* GET OUT OF JAIL FREE CARDS: The amendment eliminates the loophole created by the legislature that — when notified of an ethics form reporting violation — they have 30 days for a no-foul correction.

* PENALTY: It increase fines for ethics violations to a possible $10,000, from $1,000.

* THE PEOPLE RULE: The amendment removes the ability of the legislature to change the amendment to create loopholes, as they've done with abandon. Only another constitutional amendment approved by voters could bring changes.

If the lobbyists' and special interest group lawyers aren't already at work fly-specking this proposal, they soon will be. From the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce and lobbyists like Ted Mullenix will come harrumphs and whines about interference with the customary conduct of business. No kidding.

The rise of Trump — including in Arkansas — gives some hopes that voters have grown weary of politicians who say one thing ("ethics reform") and do another — (slug wine,  chomp steaks, travel to China, benefit from secret spending by special interest groups). There are no red herrings to raise here — no men in women's bathrooms, no freebies for welfare deadbeats (unless you could the many legislators who would have no income were it not for their now much richer legislative pay, expense perks and freebies). It's just about a cleaner way of doing the public's business. If the 2014 ethics amendment proved anything, it proved the legislature can't be trusted to police itself.

PS — The  path to the ballot will be even more difficult than before because the legislature — yes, them again — took steps to make it harder to hire canvassers to circulate ballot petitions. It would have been tougher still had not Couch succeeded in winning a lawsuit that struck down an even more onerous anti-petition law. This latest ethics measure should tell you plenty about why they don't like grassroots lawmaking.

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