The Arkansas legislature earns its low regard daily, last Friday with committee approval of a constitutional amendment labeled "ethics reform."
It's sponsored by freshman Rep. Warwick Sabin, a proven progressive, fine fellow and former Times colleague. It was endorsed by Paul Spencer, leader of the Regnat Populus grassroots effort to pass a ballot initiative to tighten ethics rules.
To win approval from the legislature, the ethics measure was amended into worthlessness. It gives constitutional protection to junkets and expense account dining on the lobby's tab and it also gives legislators a way to stay longer in the legislature at higher pay.
Sabin started with a measure to fulfill Regnat Populus' aims of outlawing corporate campaign contributions, requiring a two-year waiting period before a legislator could become a lobbyist and prohibiting gifts from lobbyists to legislators.
The measure still retains the corporate contribution ban. (Nice, though typically a factor in only a minority of races. Plus, the U.S. Supreme Court may soon strike down such limitations.) That lobby cooling-off period? It won't apply to current legislators if they don't run again. That ban on lobbyist gifts? It gets way worse.
The amendment incorporates a huge loophole in existing ethical rules. It says lawmakers still may partake of "food or drink available at a planned activity to which a specific governmental body or identifiable group of public servants is invited."
This provides constitutional cover (out of reach of future legislatures) for all the hog slopping by the lobby during a session, including big balls for legislative leadership and lesser nightly parties for invited guest lists. The amendment provides no bar for tightly targeted guest lists — a soiree for select members of a committee considering tort reform, for example. The nightly round of lobby — paid social activities would continue, with constitutional protection.
It gets worse. The amendment also now gives constitutional protection to junkets. It makes legal forever "Payments by regional or national organizations for travel to regional or national conferences at which the State of Arkansas is requested to be represented. ..."
If the electric co-op throws a conference in New York, all it takes for a legislator to get a free plane ticket, Ritz-Carlton room, meals, drinks and a round of golf or two is an official invite requesting the presence of Arkansas at the event. Remember the big Turkey junket that produced a legislative resolution in support of Kazakhstan? It, too, could be constitutionally protected if this amendment passes.
And I still haven't gotten to the worst of it.
In return for empty nods in the direction of better ethics, greedy legislators also insisted on some kickbacks. 1) The amendment would establish a commission (a majority named by legislative leaders) to set legislative pay. This would take the political hot potato out of legislative hands. Pay raises could be expected to follow forthwith. 2) Term limits would be eased considerably. Where lawmakers now may serve no more than six years in the House and eight, generally, in the Senate, a lawmaker could choose to serve 16 years in either the House or Senate. That functionally neuters term limits. With 16 years in a single chamber, a lawmaker can acquire immense power.
A sound argument can be made for higher legislative pay and an end to term limits. But no argument can be made that the legislature is giving back anything of significance to get these benefits.
The legislature has killed meaningful ethics legislation this session, such as a move to end logrolling of campaign contributions from one candidate to another and to stop multiple donations from the same corporate source. This same legislature, furthermore, is spoiling to make citizen ballot initiatives just about impossible.
If this amendment passes, we could be stuck with it forever.
Free meals, free junkets, higher pay, longer time in office. Only an Arkansas legislator would call this "ethics reform."