by Max Brantley
Sheffield Nelson's news conference this morning apparently will be an opportunity to bang Sen. Jonathan Dismang, an advocate for shale gas exploration, for receiving campaign contributions from gas companies.
I'm awaiting more details. It's certainly fair game, as I've said, to note financial support from beneficiaries of legislative advocacy. If Nelson pushes ahead with an assertion that it's a potential ethics violation, I'd need to know more than I know now.
But financial ties are useful tools for somebody pushing a gas severance tax, as Nelson is, against legislators, like Dismang, who say it would be a terrible thing.
Update from Cheree Franco:
Sheffield Nelson, who is spearheading a statewide campaign to collect the 62,500 signatures needed to make an increased severance tax a ballot initiative in November 2012, said the only thing clear to him at this point is that Sen. Dismang's position on the gas severance tax represents an apparent conflict of interest. He has no plans at this point to file a formal complaint about it.
Dismang is a former chairman of the board of Arkansas National Association of Royalty Owners, which represents the interests of gas and oil company investors. "This is not legislation, this is lobbying," said Nelson. It's an unpaid position, Dismang said, that he held before he became a legislator.
According to Dismang's itemized list of campaign contributions in the final fund-raising period of 2008 — "the beginning of the romance," as Nelson put it — Southwestern Energy Company in Fayetteville contributed $750; Chesapeake Operating, Inc., a gas company out of Oklahoma City, contributed $1,000; Little Rock's Stephens Group, which has oil and gas holdings, contributed $500; and Houston's XTO Energy contributed $500. This was about a fourth of $13,680 in total contributions in that period. Gas industry money also came into his 2010 campaign.
Dismang defended himself in a prepared statement:
I am disappointed that Mr. Nelson has decided to attack me personally. I have great respect for Mr. Nelson and I appreciate much of the work he has done for Arkansas. He has in fact, supported and acted as a wonderful advocate for several charities that are near and dear to my heart. However, my district is in the shale play, and I will not apologize for standing up for my neighbor that was struggling to support his family and is now making $60,000 a year because of a job created by the natural gas industry. I will not apologize for standing up for our local jobs and the future of our local economy. My record shows that I am an advocate for the families in my district, and I am very proud of that fact. Today's press conference should be seen as what it is: a publicity stunt. I hope we can move past this needless discourse and get back to a discussion based on facts.
In response to a question, Dismang also said he was no royalty or lease owner, but served in the royalty group because of his knowledge of the industry. He noted that his first term in the legislature he supported a bill that the gas industry opposed — on eminent domain — because it was in his district's interest.
Nelson doesn't think Dismang's views represent the majority of voters in his district. "Most people are not benefiting from this industry. It's doing a lot of good for a very few people. It's tearing up roads and using massive water reserves, which people know they'll end up paying for down the road. This may cost him re-election."
Nelson, a former gas company executive, pointed out that many energy companies operating within Arkansas are not based in the state. "These companies make $3.5 billion in the sale of corporate gas, and that will never hit Arkansas banks," he said. "I'm not mad at the industry, I'm mad at what they're doing to Arkansas, and that I'm paying for this."
He said the petition has thousands of signatures and that they plan to continue to canvas with unpaid volunteers. The Municipal League is backing the drive and is expected to make a big push at the primary election in May.