Columns » John Brummett

Here, kids, is how to make a law

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Today we offer a legislative tale. It illustrates the inordinate power of private interests at the state Capitol. It also touches on the lack of forthrightness and accountability in the legislative process. Rich landowners by the name of Deltic Timber, well-known for upscale development west of Little Rock, want to develop company land next to Lake Maumelle, which happens to be the water supply for much of Central Arkansas. The regional water system, Central Arkansas Water, asserts that it must protect the watershed from the potential harm of development. It aims to exercise eminent domain to condemn the property and prohibit the development. Deltic Timber hires lobbyists and public relations people and does what rich private interests sometimes do when they meet resistance: They try to make their own state law. The company persuades key senators to file a bill that, when read without the context just provided, sounds like an environmental protection measure that the Sierra Club might embrace. It’s nobly entitled the “Water Quality Protection Act of 2005.” It says that in order to protect watersheds from pollutants, the state Soil and Water Conservation Commission may negotiate stewardship agreements with developers. While intentionally obscure to the casual observer, the real purpose is crystal clear to the self-interested. It is to remove Central Arkansas Water’s right of eminent domain and substitute oversight by this pliable state agency — pliable because Soil and Water’s budget is controlled by the very legislators who would pass this measure. To remove opposition, the bill gets amended to make sure it would apply only to the kind of water system of which Central Arkansas Water is currently the state’s only example. Everywhere else in the state, developers could be stopped by the eminent domain of water systems. You would think that such a bill would require extensive public debate. You’d be wrong. Deltic Timber pre-emptively co-opts six of the seven senators of the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee, to which the bill is assigned. It does so by lining them up as co-sponsors. This is a common power play. A special interest selects a senator in a key committee spot, in this case Bob Johnson of Bigelow, as its point man. He explains the innocent virtue of the matter to his committee colleagues. His version prevails with these colleagues, thanks to their courtesy and the fact that there is no competing version. That’s because the other side has no idea what’s being done to it in legislative back alleys. This assures that the bill will be out of committee and on the Senate floor before you can say, “This water tastes funny.” Meanwhile, there is Sen. Shane Broadway of Bryant. He is becoming known for his mix of occasionally strong leadership, as on school facilities, and his occasional straddling of controversial issues, as on much of everything else. He goes to Benton for a chamber of commerce breakfast. A reporter for the Little Rock paper, working on a profile of Broadway, attends. A man in the audience pipes up that he works for Central Arkansas Water and asks Broadway why he won’t let the water company protect the water supply. Broadway tells the gentlemen that he respects people on both sides and sees both sides. What Broadway fails to mention, according to the article profiling him, is the little fact that he is one of 21 co-sponsors of the bill — enough to pass it in the 35-member Senate. I send an e-mail to Broadway to ask if the newspaper account is accurate. He replies that it is, although the fuller context is that man knew he was a sponsor of the bill. Broadway agrees to meet later with the man. Maybe the senator will change his mind on his own bill. Dealing with the public in the light of day sometimes can take some of the grease right off the skids.

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