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Talk is cheap 

Republican Jim Keet's long-shot mission to beat popular Gov. Mike Beebe requires him to churn up an issue a week to grab some free media.

His ill-considered alliance with the bitter-enders trying to prevent merger of the undersized Weiner School District is one example. Guest writer Rick Fahr, a Weiner alum, makes the case for consolidation in this week's Times. Such thoughtfulness was lacking in Keet's rush to find a school issue to stir enthusiasm among rural folks.

I was more favorably struck when Keet unveiled an ethics platform last week. Among his ideas:

• A two-year cooling-off period before former legislators and constitutional officers' staff members could become lobbyists.

• Limiting legislative per diem to actual expenses, supported by receipts. This would end a practice that has turned into a $25,000-plus salary supplement for many lawmakers.

• Reimbursement of legislative travel capped at the "lowest cost reasonable alternative." No more loading up the family wagon with Ma and the younguns and billing the state by the mile for circuitous road trips with a stop for a conference along the way.

• Holding public officials to the same reimbursement standards as state employees.

• An end to multipliers for state officials' retirement. No more double-counting of legislative service, for example.

These are good ideas — some of them beaten down by lawmakers before. I'd fault the list only for the omission of a proposal to end lobbyist expenditures on legislators for food, drink, recreation, travel or anything else. Lobbyist entertainment may be the most corrupting practice at the Capitol. All efforts to regulate it have failed; the only solution is to outlaw it.

A veteran legislator — and an ethical one, at that — wasn't so impressed with Keet's announcement, however. He told me the ideas are non-starters at the legislature and Keet knows it. To him, Keet's ethics package is just cheap grandstanding. Were Keet a serious contender for election, it might hold some meaning, he says. It will take a strong and committed governor — working with the legislature — to achieve ethics reform. Even then, it will be a hard sell to the sticky-fingered legislature. An initiated act would be a better vehicle and who's going to do that?

I know this is a sound evaluation of the political realities of ethics reform. But it seems to me an utter surrender to cynicism to respond to sound — if difficult — goals by seeing them only as the cheap grandstanding of a candidate desperate for attention. Might you give life to such ideas by endorsing them? Might they be a reason to give a candidate a second look?

Who knows. If a candidate could actually inspire a continuing debate on such a worthy topic as ethics, it might even prompt a powerful incumbent opponent to adopt some of these ideas as his own. As tightly wired as Mike Beebe is to the lobby culture from his decades in the Senate, it seems a stretch, I admit. Ethics were low on his first-term agenda, for sure. But you never know.

There's also this: I think we are heading to a sea change in the partisan makeup of the Arkansas legislature. If the growing Republican cadre adopts ethics as a battle cry, Democrats might dismiss this so-called cheap grandstanding at their peril.

Until now, legislators have mostly been right about the public's disinterest in stricter ethics laws. But they can get interested. Ask Land Commissioner Mark Wilcox, he of the two state vehicles, recently rudely treated by voters.

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