The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette enlivened the Monday paper with a couple of stories on the fringe benefits of being a public official in Arkansas.
Front-page play went to an article about $18,800 worth of free cable TV service provided to a roster of public officials.
I thought the story fell a bit short of the play. More than $10,000 of the expenses were for cable TV services to the Governor's Mansion and the Capitol Hill Apartments, where 47 legislators and Secretary of State Charlie McDaniel have pads. The mansion service predated Gov. Mike Beebe and includes guest quarters and security offices.
Also, cable service these days is equivalent to a utility in many rented quarters, embedded in the cost. The real scandal at the Capitol Hill Apartments is that select legislators get cushy, convenient quarters, with parking and services (probably including the occasional house-warming gift from a lobbyist) for $300 to $350 a month. Market rates? Not exactly.
Still, you can't be too careful with the state's pennies and the oversight will save a few bucks. (I confess I was surprised that pay movies rented from Comcast seemed to run to sophomoric comedy, with nary a reported rental of “MILFs on Parade” or similar late-night fare.)
More grabbing to me was reporter Michael Wickline's rundown of legislators who, er, forgot to report free trips they'd received in 2008. All should report the junkets — whether to Turkey, to the home bases of digital giants Apple and Microsoft or an electric co-operatives-sponsored junket in Washington.
Bigger news than the omissions is the insidious nature of this travel, even when reported. It is so routine that lobbyists are not the least apologetic. Carmie Henry, the friendly lobbyist for Arkansas's electric co-operatives, said the co-op has been paying to send legislators to the conference for more than a decade. It's important that committee members who oversee electric utilities understand the subject. Uh huh. Particularly from the co-ops' point of view. I bet they don't schedule intensive workshops on the Sierra Club's view of coal-burning power plants.
Henry says the co-ops rarely have a legislative agenda. They just play “defense,” he said. Double uh-huh. The co-ops' legislative battles have been too numerous to list. One will suffice and the D-G mentioned it: It's this year's little ol' bill to give the co-ops a sweetheart deal on ratemaking. It allows higher rates before a need has been demonstrated.
This year, the co-ops spent about $13,500 — far more than the cable bill in the Mansion and the Capitol Hill building — to send five legislators (Reps. Steve Harrelson, Nathan George, Johnny Hoyt, Roy Ragland and Joan Cash) to Washington. They undoubtedly had other costs for the legislators' handlers. For $2,700 you can take quite a trip to D.C. — $400 for the plane, $250 a night for four hotel nights (four so you can be there bright and early for the first day of the three-day conference). That still leaves well more than $1,000 for entertainment.
The impact of these trips can be, over time, a good bit more expensive to taxpayers than a little free cable TV. If it was only about education, and not also ingratiation, the co-ops could have legislators out to its office in Little Rock. But without hotel, steaks and drinks, how many would turn out?
Simple fix. If trips are valuable to the state, the state should pay. The trips should not be the province of only the special pleaders looking for an edge others can't afford to buy.