Columns » Max Brantley

Good government

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House Speaker Benny Petrus endured criticism in 2005 for loaning his Capitol Hill apartment to the Oaklawn/Deltic lobbying combine. He thought it was a bum rap and he’s demonstrating his good intentions this session with solid deeds.

The speaker has become something of a champion of ethics reform.

Already, he’s shepherded improvement of a Senate bill nominally intended to prevent legislators from becoming lobbyists for a year after leaving the legislature. The bill originally exempted current members. The House changed that and even if Petrus didn’t get the two-year cooling-off period he favored, it’s a much better bill.

Now Petrus has introduced a broad ethics measure (maybe too broad, given new power it would give the Ethics Commission over business incubator projects and some other technical areas unrelated to elected officials).

I’m opposed to the bill’s effort to legalize contributions from one legislative candidate’s campaign fund to another. Petrus explains he’s only trying to clear up a hazy rule that is poorly enforced. In theory, legislators may not use campaign money to buy tickets to another candidate’s fund-raiser unless they are prepared to prove that attending the event would be good for their own campaigns.

Still, the tickets are bought all the time and Petrus is right that the situation needs clearing up. It would be best cleared by prohibition. The use of campaign money favors unopposed incumbents with fat bank accounts who make down payments on future votes with the contributions.

But enough negativity. Petrus’ bill also would:

• Prohibit multiple campaign contributions from corporations sharing the same majority owner. As it stands now, a single person in control of a dozen closely held businesses can give up to the $2,000 contribution limit in the name of each one.

• Return the maximum campaign contribution for legislative campaigns to $1,000, from $2,000. That’s plenty in Arkansas.

• Require lobbyists to report all expenditures, including food and drinks, on public officials. Now expenditures worth less than $40 need not be itemized. I’d like some assurance this bill makes it clear that lobbyists must itemize the recipients of their favors.

• Alter a section of the ethics law originally written to allow cash awards to teachers who win national contests. It appears that some slick elected officials believe they can use this exemption to have cash awards funneled to them through nonprofit organizations for their “contributions” to the state. The loophole needs closing. Quickly.

I’d prefer a gift ban. But I’d also like merit pay for legislators and peace in our time, equal long shots. I’m glad Petrus is trying. The question is whether the House effort is only window dressing.

See, I’m reminded of Rep. David Johnson’s bill to crack down on payday lenders. It passed the House 90-3, but was swiftly assassinated in a Senate committee well-lubricated with payday lenders’ money. Now the supposed Senate champion of Johnson’s bill, Sen. Shawn Womack, has stepped forward with a sham “compromise” to allow payday lenders to save face.

I think David Johnson was sincere, but I still wonder whether many of the House “yeas” suspected the Senate fix was in and got a free vote for good government without the consequences. I mean no skepticism about Petrus’ own sincerity when I say I hope his ethics bill doesn’t meet the same fate.

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