Beware legislators bearing gifts of "reform."
Last week I wrote about judicial "reform." I'm open to a means of judicial selection other than election, which is prone to undue influence by nefarious secret money. But is the Arkansas legislature up to the job? Based on the record, no.
Consider ethics "reform." Some well-meaning private citizens promoted stronger ethics legislation to the point that the Arkansas legislature put an amendment on the ballot in 2014. But by the time legislators had fiddled with the proposed constitutional amendment and then gamed the enabling legislation, the result was a hollow gesture.
Voters had opened the door to longer term limits. They had provided a tool to almost triple legislative pay. They did little to reduce excessive expense account claims. Legislative amendments made things worse. They provided loopholes to avoid the prohibition on wining and dining of legislators by lobbyists. The amendment also did nothing to stop legislators from hitting the revolving door at the Capitol to "consultant" jobs that, if not technically lobbying, were indistinguishable.
Last week, Michael Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette went through the annual (and laughably limited) personal financial disclosure statements of state legislators and found many of them had taken free junkets last year to places like France, China, Israel, Florida and Colorado.
The ethics "reform" law prohibits lobbyist-paid trips. But legislators allowed themselves free trips to "educational" meetings of national groups. The result: Putative nonprofits (some aligned with special interest political lobbies) provide the freebies. Right-wing and corporate viewpoints predominate on the meeting agendas.
Legislators got a Florida trip from an outfit that pioneered the law to drug-test welfare recipients. Other legislators were feted by groups financed by charter school management companies and other profiteers in the education "reform" movement. The pro-Israel lobby gave a couple of legislators a week in Israel (not much face time with Palestinian sympathizers, I'd bet).
Foundations have even been formed to "educate" legislative "leaders." Senate President Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy) got a trip to France from such a group. Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot), the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce's legislation bellhop, got a $5,600 junket to China paid by a group underwritten by major corporate interests — insurance, tobacco, big pharma. Critics describe it as "tutelage" for corporate politics.
Such gaming of the system inspires cynicism when the legislature talks of reform. Reforms tend to make life more comfortable for legislators, not the people they serve. Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, for example, is complaining far and wide about RESTRICTIONS of Arkansas campaign finance law. He'd like to see it "reformed" so he could raise money nonstop, as would most incumbents. Reforms, you may be sure, do NOT include searchable online financial databases.
Given that dark money is allowed to "educate" lawmakers on free trips, I have little hope that the same legislators will vote to end dark money in elections. The NRA spent money in judicial races. Is Gov. Hutchinson, once employed by the NRA, likely to support a law requiring the NRA to disclose sources of its election spending? The hate group known as the Family Council — in its ascendancy in Republican-dominated Arkansas — won't countenance disclosure of its anti-woman bankrollers, either.
If the coming special and regular legislative sessions give us nothing by way of "reform," that may not be a cause for mourning.
The ballot remains open to popular initiatives, though the legislature has worked hard to make this more difficult with impediments to canvassing. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge is also proving a reliable speed brake to citizen initiatives.
Some good government groups keep trying. Little Rock attorney David Couch has asked Rutledge to review an amendment to fix wrongs in the 2014 "ethics" amendment. It would lower campaign contribution limits; end corporate contributions to PACs; require disclosure of those people contributing to independent election campaigns, and end loopholes for free wining and dining and trips of any sort, including from "educational groups."
Best of all, Couch's proposal would prohibit the legislature from amending the people's amendment. Once bitten, twice cured.