Columns » Jay Barth

Barth: Ethics overhaul would win the vote

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A bit over a year ago in this space, I made the case that if presented the opportunity at the ballot box, Arkansas voters would ratify a significant ethics overhaul. Recent polling on the Regnat Populus initiative, which had its ballot title cleared by the attorney general last week so that petition signature gathering can begin, supports that analysis.

In a Talk Business-Hendrix College poll late last month, the key provisions of the measure — ending corporate and union donations to Arkansas campaigns, employing the "Wal-Mart rule" to prevent lobbyists from providing gifts to legislators, and a two year cooling-off period before outgoing legislators could be employed as lobbyists — gain the support of 69 percent of those surveyed with majority support across most all groups of Arkansans (the tepid support among African Americans provides an interesting exception).

It's clear that those who oppose the measure likely cannot win at the ballot box. Therefore, stopping the measure from getting on the ballot with a "decline to sign" campaign is their best shot at stopping it. The opponents of the measure are aided by Regnat Populus's incredibly late start with a July 1 deadline looming, their present lack of money for paid canvassers to collect signatures, and the fact that the primary election that serves as their best shot to gain large numbers of those signatures is one where turnout will be abysmal because the most scintillating race on most ballots is a low-key race for Supreme Court.

Some of the most engaged opposition to Regnat Populus is coming from progressive legislators who say that the measure will further disempower folks like them, especially those without personal resources necessary to be a "most-time" legislator. They argue that, in the term-limits era there is not time for legislators to become influential experts and that the best opportunities for "crash courses" are out-of-state conferences with costly travel. Their desire to be effective legislators is to be praised, but reform's costs are less than they suggest and the benefits of reform outpace them. First, if the educational group carrying out the conference is not lobbying here, its supporters could pay for the legislative travel under the measure. Moreover, there are many more legislators attending meetings sponsored by ALEC (which, we know from reports this week, is actively lobbying in Arkansas on issues like health care reform) and like groups than attending conferences on the latest research on the perils of fracking or benefits of afterschool programs. Finally, even when that travel connects legislators with other progressives from around the country, entities lobbying in Arkansas paying for it is fundamentally problematic. Even if legislators could ignore who paid for their trip when a vote important to the group comes along, it raises a perception of impropriety that harms the public trust.

The critics also underplay the considerable good that would come from the measure. Although the lobbyists who offer legislators trusted information on complex issues would maintain their legitimate role in the system, the lobbyists who rely upon steaks in the backroom of Doe's to gain votes during sessions would have that tool taken away from them. Moreover, the new rules would level the playing field for citizen activists who reach out to their legislators during the legislative process.

In addition to reducing the role of the lobbyists who rely on gifts to sway votes, the measure would — over time — create change in the types of individuals who run for the legislature. Those who are drawn to the perks of office or to the promise of a lobbying job immediately after leaving office would no longer have an interest in the post. That would be a considerable step forward for the state and for the people's interests.

We need to use technology to enhance disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures. We need to expand the Bureau of Legislative Research to provide legislators research without reliance on out-of-state trips. We need to raise legislative pay (removing per diems) to make it viable for rank and file citizens to do the job. We need to admit that the most severe term limits in the country are doing harm to our state. First, however, we need to take the step forward that Regnat Populus offers us.

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