Columns » Max Brantley

Back scratching

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Attorney General Dustin McDaniel called me to talk about details of his coming run at improving Arkansas ethics laws a bit.

He said there was one part I wouldn't like.

Smart man, Attorney General McDaniel.

McDaniel proposes, effectively, to bribe the legislature to pass his ideas. What else would you call giving legislators money in return for official action?

Before I pound McDaniel further, let me say I do so with a heavy heart. He gets points with virtually no one for even trying. The public doesn't much seem to care about ethics laws. The legislature wants looser ethics laws, not tougher ones.

A number of McDaniel's ideas aren't bad and he's probably correct to say that incremental steps are the only way to improve the law.

He'd put a one-year lobbying moratorium on legislators, state officials and top state employees. This delay in moving to a lobbyist job might also be written to prevent going to work in any fashion for a private interest that had had a nexus with the public official. It would apply to the sitting legislature, not a future legislature. It's a vast improvement over current law.

He wants on-line lobby reporting for easier public access. He wants to specifically prohibit “absentee lobbying.” In this, a legislator gets a lobbyist's credit card number for a night on the town, sans lobbyist. I can't believe this practice is legal now. In any case, the law would explicitly prohibit lobbyist expenditures on absent lawmakers. To the extent it discouraged any current abuses, it's a step forward.

McDaniel also would punish both legislator and lobbyists for colluding about unreported gifts.

But back to the bribery. McDaniel says one reason for legislators' ready acceptance of lobby freebies is their low pay. Give them a little more spending room on their own and they'll be less corruptible. A pay raise of any significance is a constitutional and political impossibility. So McDaniel proposes to let legislators use surplus campaign funds for meals, travel or lodging for “political purposes.”

In short, he's turning campaign surpluses into an entertainment expense account. It won't take much for a creative legislator to figure out a “political purpose” for a golf outing in Ireland.

Campaign surpluses accrue mostly in the accounts of the most powerful legislators. (See: House Speaker Robbie Wills, who spent his to curry favor with legislators who eventually elected him speaker.) They pile up, too, mostly in uncontested races, both primary and general. The money typically comes from the usual suspects – legislative lobbyists and their clients who dash off checks in big round numbers.

The way I see it, this provision just launders more lobby money into the wallets of extra-influential legislators to spend any way they see fit. It won't do a thing to prevent the lawmakers  from taking freebies from lobbyists on top of the new payola.

It strikes me as wrong to offer legislators more money, arising mostly from special interests, in the name of a better ethics law. It does, however, illustrate the depth of the problem and the perceived character of the legislature as a whole.

McDaniel says he's doing yeoman work to prevent legislators from forcing an increase in the $40 threshold of lobbyist dining at which public reporting kicks in. No doubt.

Someday, a sufficient scandal will prompt another public initiative to further stiffen the Arkansas ethics law. Until then, it's still going to be pay to play.

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