by Max Brantley
We mentioned Speaker Petrus' ethics bill, HB 2384, this morning. It's due up for a vote in the House today. What we didn't know then was that the unguided missile known currently as state Democratic Party chair, Jason Willett, had sent out an e-mail last night to legislators urging them to defeat the bill. As best I can tell, he did this on his own hook, without approval from any party committee.
Willett's e-mail is on the jump. He objects to lowering the campaign contribution limit from $2,000 to $1,00 and -- unbelievably -- objects to the bill's good idea to outlaw multiple contributions from the same person under different corporate veils.
How many ways is this dumb? It's a slap in the face to Petrus, who's built a formidable coalition in the House. (Petrus says Willett informed him of the e-mail at 9:16 p.m. last night, after it had been sent.) It's a slap in the face to Gov. Mike Beebe, who Petrus said has agreed to support the bill, with some small technical changes. It's a gift to Republicans who can, without doing anything positive about ethics on their own, characterize the whole Democratic Party as the party of the special interest lobbies (a proposition that needs no further supporting evidence from the state party chairman.) Willett is, of course, a lobbyist wannabe himself, so you can see why legislation that would complicate that business wouldn't be welcome to him personally, even if it is welcome to believers in good government.
Petrus is steamed about this, understandably. "This is why people vote for term limits," he said. "Our party is going to oppose cleaning up government?"
Petrus noted that he wasn't on Willett's e-mail notification, but a Republican, Daryl Pace, was. He also questions Willett's math, that suggests there are more Republicans than Democrats able to contribute to political candidates. Asa Hutchinson might agree with Petrus on that. (This is a good point to mention another flaw in the bill -- it exempts statewide offices, such as governor, from the reduction in contribution limits. Thus, Beebe has no particular personal reason to be opposed. I didn't read the bill carefully enough. Though one section exempts statewide officers from the lower limit, a subsequent passage brings them back in. It's also a good time to note that the Republican Party internally is on record against a reduction in the contribution limit.)
Because parts of Petrus' bill will amend an initiated act on ethics, it will require a two-thirds vote for passage, so any votes peeled off will be important. Separate parts of the legislation are carried in separate legislation, however, and some -- including those to which Willett objects -- could be passed separately by simple majorities.
A lingering question: Who is Willett really acting for in sending this e-mail around?
JASON WILLETT'S E-MAIL
Democratic Members of the Legislature:
The Democratic Party of Arkansas has yet to contact members of the Legislature individually this session, and this is our policy in almost all cases. We recognize that the people of Arkansas have elected you to create the laws, and it is our job to make sure that you can continue to do so.
HB 2384 THE SUNSHINE IN GOVERNMENT ACT is that rare instance where legislation could hurt our ability too reelect you, and to elect Democrats in the future.
The intentions of this bill are commendable. We all want openness and reform. However, there are two key aspects of this bill that hurt any candidate who does not have $10 million of their own money to throw into their race.
Two key pieces of this bill hurt Democratic candidates:
These two provisions ensure that only the Donald Trumps and Arnold Schwarzeneggers of the world can hope to successfully run for public office. This bill would hurt great candidates. It will hurt anyone who seeks to serve the public who cannot self-fund their campaign.
We all know that there are relatively few people who can stroke a $1000 check. Look at it this way, if you put 100 Arkansans in a room who can give $1000 to a candidate, that room will split 60/40 in favor of the Republican candidate.
What current law allows, and what HB 2384 takes away, is the ability for a Democratic candidate to appeal to a wealthy donor. A donor who, through their multiple companies and deep resources, can help level the playing field. Granted, this applies to Republicans as well, but by eliminating this option we doom ourselves to always being at that 60/40 disadvantage.
Current law does not strictly benefit Democrats, but it allows us to play ball. HB 2384 strictly hinders Democrats. It would doom us to always fighting uphill, and always knowing that financial resources are stacked against us.
Democrats want transparency in government. Democrats want reform. The problem with this bill is not its aims. The problem with this bill is that it hurts the ability for the average person to get elected.
Please take a close look at HB 2384, and help the DPA protect the principle that any Arkansan who wishes to serve in public office has a realistic opportunity to do so.
Democratic Party of Arkansas