Columns » John Brummett

Extremist's good idea

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Jim Holt, the extreme conservative now twice defeated in statewide races, says he’ll probably still be seen around the legislative session next year advocating his interests as a regular citizen.

You remember those gems — criminalizing persons providing services to undocumented immigrants, opposing pre-kindergarten programs, eschewing any kind of minimum wage.

He’ll be wholly ineffective, of course, though no more than when he actually served in the Legislature.

That he’ll be thoroughly inept is mostly, but not exclusively, good news.

You see, Holt once had a splendid idea. It was to impose what some call the Wal-Mart rule on the state legislature.

Wal-Mart buyers are barred from accepting even a cup of coffee from vendors. Holt once talked of leading a drive for an initiated act to put that same kind of restriction on the dealings of state legislators and lobbyists.

If Holt had run for lieutenant governor along with a concurrent campaign for that initiated act as his calling card, he might have divorced himself from the corrupt Republican image in Washington, and won.

He certainly would have made life more interesting. How, exactly, would other candidates have managed to come out in favor of taking lobbyists’ gifts?

Somehow they’d have managed, I’m sure.

I should make clear: Special interest business lobbyists possess every right to represent their companies at the legislature. Some business lobbyists are fine men and women. A couple are friends of mine, at least to the narrow extent permitted by our disparate professional interests and my unpleasant disposition.

But special interest lobbyists, whether business or otherwise, should not be permitted to seek or exert special influence over legislation by purchasing food, drink or entertainment for legislators.

Some legislators tell me it happens before they know it. They hear, “Your bill has been taken care of, sir.”

Lobbyists should not be permitted even to leave an impression of seeking or exerting special influence.

That’s the issue, really. Legislators say haughtily that they can’t be bought for the price of dinner. Wal-Mart buyers would tell you the same thing. But dinners add up. And the point is to offer hard evidence of independence to the customer, or taxpayer, and protect the integrity of your institution.

Personal ethics are internal, between one and his conscience. But institutional ethics need to be put in writing. Rep. Jones can’t be responsible for Rep. Smith’s conscience. But he can insist that they live by the same written rules.

We need a simple law saying legislators may not accept any gift or favor of any monetary value from any registered special interest lobbyist or from any person with interests pending before the Legislature and without a preceding personal relationship.

You could permit an exception for those ubiquitous receptions that chambers of commerce and trade groups sponsor during legislative sessions. The Ethics Commission could sort all that out.

The chances of such a measure becoming law? None for a bill in thelegislature. We’re talking about a club and a culture and a disease.

Only as an initiated act might such a policy ever be imposed.

Let’s be candid: This is not our new governor’s strength.

Mike Beebe has always liked business lobbyists for dinner partners and golf rivals. He always told me that he advocated public disclosure of lobbyists’ spending for legislative entertainment instead of an outright ban.

That’s an odd insistence when you think about it — standing up for the right of lobbyists to wine and dine legislators and requiring only that lobbyists file generalized public reports.

We can assume that Beebe didn’t raise those record millions from the state’s business establishment so that he could put the quietus on business lobbyists’ practices.

I’m suddenly remembering debating a man on this issue a few years ago at John Brown University. The fellow opposing a Wal-Mart rule for legislators was the state Poultry Federation’s lobbyist. I probably should mention that he’s now the chief of staff to the governor-elect.

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