by Max Brantley
Regards an article today in Democrat-Gazette that mentions the state Senate's continued resistance to televising proceedings, committee or on the floor:
Some of the best members of the Senate — Jim Luker and Mary Anne Salmon, I'm talking about you — are wrong on this issue. Turn on the cameras. The public is better served by ready access by computer to the public's business. Everyone isn't wealthy enough to drive down to Little Rock in hopes of catching a committee meeting (if they are lucky enough to find a parking space.)
The embarrassment a senator might experience from dozing before a camera is a small price for broader civic engagement.
Republican Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, wrong on so many things, is right on this one.
Noted also in the article was this passage about a memo to House members from Speaker Robert Moore including counsel on limiting additional committee meetings to the first week of the month:
Such a schedule “will conserve a member’s time obligation in Little Rock, away from his/her home district, as well as provide appropriate stewardship in the issuance of per diem and mileage reimbursement,” he said.
The memorandum also said that “for members to receive their per diem and mileage associated with attending per diem meetings, members should plan on rendering maximum participation in the entire committee process whenever such is consistent with other legislative responsibilities.”
Forget for a moment questions about unconstitutional pay enhancements for legislators. Consider instead how the system, even if legal, is abused and manipulated. Is Moore urging legislators to be a little more ethical? Good luck with that. Read on for a description from a reader in a position to know how the system is abused by some legislators.
There is a provision that allows non-committee members to be reimbursed and paid per diem on the days ANY legislative committee is meeting, regardless of whether or not that legislator is on that specific committee. The basis for this is that, as you know, is that any legislator benefits from the transactions and exchanges during that committee meeting, and that perhaps it will provide otherwise unknown background information for bills that might appear before them in the future.
Here is where it gets tricky………
Some legislators drive to LR on the day of committee meetings, or even the night before, sign in to collect the per diem for the day and mileage, go down to the cafeteria for breakfast and are “seen” by many, maybe stop by a couple of capitol offices, then LEAVE. They can go back home, go to their apartment to nap, shop, whatever. If there are multiple committee meetings that day, no one knows who is in what meeting when. If the committee requires a sign-in sheet, they can sign in, then leave. No one monitors this.
If someone were to audit the top “expense earners”, many of those exposes might come from mileage and expenses claimed in conjunction with attendance in committee meetings which they were not members. Think Mark Martin, now secretary of state.
Some are legitimate. I am not suggesting ALL are doing this. There are legitimate reasons for being an observer in a committee meeting that you are not a voting member of. But if you attend a committee meeting, rarely do you see many (if any) legislators sitting in the guest seats. These are filled by interested parties of the subject being discussed.
This tactic has gone on for a long time, and unfortunately, is an unofficial part of the very off-the-record “tutorial” freshmen house and senate members receive about how to work the system when they first go to LR. It is a well shared secret because the more people who do it, the dimmer the spotlight is on a select few who might get caught.