Columns » Max Brantley

Legislators order cake, eat it

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To the surprise of most, Arkansas voters easily approved Amendment 94, a multi-faceted amendment that placed limits on corporate campaign contributions, changed term limits and changed ethics laws.

The proposal arose as a straight ethics amendment by the grassroots group, Regnat Populus. It was going nowhere until Republican Sen. Jon Woods (R-Springdale), whose only readily visible means of support outside the legislature is playing in a rock band, offered to help out. Additions included a mechanism to provide politicians with pay raises through a citizens commission, not their own vote.

The prospect of more years of service — a senator like Woods could serve up to 18 consecutive years in the Senate — and higher pay made it appealing enough to win legislative ballot approval.

But the expansion of term limits angered term limits foes. The Republican Party officially opposed the amendment. It passed anyway. Legislators are now devouring the cake they baked.

The independent citizens commission, including nominees of legislative leaders, has just recommend more than doubling legislative pay, from $15,800 to $39,000. They'll still get to claim per diem — a tax-free payment of up to $150 that is supposed to cover expenses but is a pay supplement when it is paid, as it often is, for days they don't work. They still get higher mileage reimbursements than other state employees.

The commission was persuaded to increase salary substantially by an offer by legislative leadership to give up the $14,400 home expense legislators have been abusing with phony expense claims for spouses.

Legislators will take home more for part-time work than the average full-time Arkansas worker. They'll also get an income tax cut in that new pay bracket thanks to Gov. Asa Hutchinson, though they agreed with him that the 40 percent of Arkansas workers making less than $21,000 a year are undeserving of an income tax cut.

Pay for other state officials jumped significantly, too, including 11 percent pay raises for judges who already ranked 28th in pay in the country in a state where the average wage ranks about 48th.

The amendment also gave more enforcement power to the state Ethics Commission, but big deal. It recently decided that $300,000 in dark money TV advertising to elect Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, featuring Leslie Rutledge, was not a contribution to Rutledge's election.

Then there's the new rule to eliminate gifts to legislators by lobbyists and those who employ them. It was supposed to stop wining and dining. Except ... legislators included an exception for "scheduled activities" to which all members of a governmental body are invited.

Wouldn't you know it? There's a scheduled activity every day — breakfast, lunch, cocktail hour, dinner. The nursing home lobby has a standing "scheduled activity" of lunch and cocktails most days at a Capitol Hill hideaway. It couldn't possibly hold 135 legislators, nor is it intended to given that there are often multiple "scheduled activities" at the same time. It's the modern day incarnation of the Electric Racetrack, Chicken House and Choo Choo Room, lobbyist retreats of yore where stiff drinks and big shrimp were always on offer. Now you merely have to schedule events and keep the drinks coming.

The Bureau of Legislative Research is also serving as party liaison. It schedules "activities" for committees. In other words, it schedules powwows at swank dining spots for more intimate lobbying with key Senate and House committees, all on the lobbyists' tab. Arthur's Prime, Brave New Restaurant, Sonny Williams, Copper Grill. These are the sorts of places "scheduled activities" are taking place.

If all goes well, one of these lobby groups will sue and get a Citizens United-style ruling against the ban on corporate campaign contributions.

Come the day, Woods and his chums can have a "scheduled activity" at Arthur's Prime to celebrate. With their new pay raise — and the power they're likely to accrue over 16 to 18 years — they could even volunteer to pick up a check for once.

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