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Lobbyist shocker: Ethics law passage 

Big business went to bed election night with dreamy benedictions for Arkansas voters, who had finally seen things its way and elected swarms of Republicans who did not think of government as protector of consumers and working stiffs.

But dawn brought the awful revelation that while they had elected Tea Party-brand Republicans all over the state, the voters were as fickle as ever. Oh, business interests and the Republican Party were resigned to the landslide passage of a big hike in the minimum wage, that old Democratic chimera, but they did not expect the voters to also clip business' power over legislation.

That is what they seemed to do when they ratified Ballot Issue 3, the ethics, salaries and expanded-term-limits amendment to the state Constitution; or, as it is officially called, The Arkansas Elected Officials, Ethics Transparency, and Financial Reform Amendment of 2014.

Starting at midnight last Wednesday, five hours after the polls closed, lobbyists and their employers could no longer buy a legislator or another state official even a whiskey sour or a cup of coffee without committing a crime. And corporations can no longer drop money in the campaign account of anyone holding or running for a state elective office. If you want to be absolutely certain that your nursing homes are simpatico with the new Republican attorney general, Leslie Rutledge, who will run the Medicaid and nursing home fraud office after Jan. 12, it's too late unless you want to send her a personal check of up to $2,000.

"This shuts us all down — we're out of business," was the overwrought reaction of one contract lobbyist Wednesday morning after he had looked at the final returns on Issue 3. It was the only one of the five ballot issues that was expected, even by its authors, to go down in a landslide. Instead, it passed by 40,000 votes.

The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce heard the anguished cries and by afternoon had summoned the fifth estate, as the lobbying industry is known, to its headquarters for a strategy session on the new law. Reportedly 120 showed up.

Soon there will be opinion requests to the attorney general or the state Ethics Commission to see if loopholes can be opened in the tightly written amendment that will allow lobbyists, in some way, to wine, dine and entertain legislators as they have since yore. The authors, state Rep. Warwick Sabin of Little Rock, a Democrat, and Sen. Jon Woods of Springdale, a Republican, believe their law is airtight.

But they work against an adage — that money in politics, like rainwater, will find its way to where it wants to go, law or no law.

How did all this happen?

Sabin, a youthful idealist, went to the House in 2013 with two goals, to work with the other party and to pass a strict code of ethics governing legislators and other elected state officials, which had escaped others since Doug Brandon wrote the first ethics law. Brandon's was watered down before it passed in the 1970s. Woods joined Sabin and thought the law also should do something about the system of compensating legislators and constitutional officers, which left them underpaid and forever crafting subterfuges to pay themselves adequately.

The Republican House Speaker, Davy Carter of Cabot, said, look, if you will also amend it so that legislators can stay in office longer than six years in the House and eight years in the Senate, we'll all jump on board and refer it to the voters. (The amendment allows someone to stay in the legislature for up to 16 years, 18 in rare instances.) Republicans generally are stout on term limits but once they get in office they realize the value of staying long enough to gain wisdom. Sabin and Woods obliged and the House passed the resolution 71-12 and the Senate 23-4.

Either the Republican lawmakers wanted to sabotage the ethics law by tying it to the unpopular term-limits liberalization or else they underestimated the opposition. Term-limits people are fanatical. They spent heavily to defeat the issue, rolling a giant wooden horse through the streets to expose the measure's dark secret, which was that in the guise of ethics it undid Arkansas's 20-year-old term limits.

How do you explain the voters? Are they that strong on ethics? Did they not realize that it sharply increased legislative longevity? Or did they think that since they were voting solidly Republican anyway they might as well support the whole Republican legislative program, including the three legislative amendments?

By late summer, the Republican platform had called on voters to stomp the ethics amendment and the citizen-led and Democrat-backed minimum wage, but the voters demurred.

Now, lobbyists, their employers and lawyers, along with legislators, are scouring the law for tiny cracks, like stretching the word "office" to mean "a person holding an office" in a section exempting from the gift-food ban an event where a whole governmental body or "office" is invited.

The assumption is that, without all the blandishments of lobbying, big business — whether utilities, the insurance industry, oil, banks or racetracks — can no longer get its mandates across to legislators. Of course, if they have them in their pockets from the outset, just philosophically, it shouldn't make any difference. But even Republicans sometimes prove capricious.

Campaign gifts are another matter. Even before the amendment's ban on corporate campaign gifts and other overreaches, Republican strategists had found a bypass. One day last spring, Gilbert Baker, the former Republican state chairman and senator, created seven political action committees through which a nursing home magnate and his corporations could funnel money unseen into the state court race of a judge who was sitting on a wrongful death suit against one of his homes.

Don't forget that the U.S. Supreme Court may have made any effort to curb financial power in elections impossible.

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