Columns » Max Brantley

Looking ahead on ethics

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I write on election eve, with feelings of dread generally, but dead certainty about one ballot issue.

Arkansas voters will defeat the legislatively referred amendment to strengthen ethics laws. Some well-intentioned people, chiefly Rep. Warwick Sabin, undertook this proposal in the 2013 legislature to offer some good government.

To get it done, they agreed to add-ons that poisoned the measure — a nonpolitical way for legislators to get pay raises and an extension of term limits. For working in a bipartisan spirit, ethics reformers got smeared by editorial writers and double-crossed by the Republican Party, which turned on a measure that couldn't have made the ballot without Republican majority support.

The measure will be defeated thanks to term limits money. Fine. The ethics measures were worthy, particularly a ban on direct corporate campaign contributions and a ban of lobbyist wining and dining of lawmakers.

But reformers aren't done. They will try again to pass a clean ethics bill. The greedheads and special interests will beat it in the legislature most likely. And that could be the springboard for an initiative campaign.

Then Arkansas could have a truly meaningful ethics law. No more wining and dining. Stiffer criminal penalties for ethics law violations. (Why not a felony for converting campaign money to personal use, as in federal law?) The end to corporate contributions, both to individual campaigns and PACs. The current law's contribution limit of $2,000 for an individual is meaningless, as demonstrated by nursing home magnate Michael Morton, who's spent a quarter-of-a-million through multiple corporate entities to buy influence with judges by the carload and an attorney general (an office that investigates nursing home fraud).

Lots of other things are possible, including emulating states that make lobbyists wear nametags at the Capitol.

The measure also could include independence for the state Ethics Commission, an underfunded, understaffed agency that depends on the people it investigates for its meager livelihood. An independent financing mechanism is necessary to ensure its protection from vengeful legislators.

The Ethics Commission has had nine employees for 15 years and its appropriation for operations has actually declined in that time.

This week, post-election, the Commission will ask for a modest increase of $28,000 annually for operations so it can afford an office with room enough to hold a commission meeting. It also wants to add two lawyers and a compliance specialist, which would cost about $176,000.

They need that and more. The hyperpartisan political atmosphere has dramatically increased efforts to search for opponents' ethical blunders. Nothing wrong with that, but it takes staff to investigate the rising number of complaints, which seem likely to be up 40 percent in 2014 over 2012, with a near doubling of citizen-initiated complaints. The complaints are also becoming more complex as the amount of money at issue grows.

The agency has long had to be too reactive because of its small size. A bigger agency could systematically review filings and correct problems before they grow from simple ignorance or honest mistake to institutionalized corruption (the cases of Paul Bookout and Mark Darr, for example).

Legislators talk a lot about good government. They could do something about it by stiffening the ethics law and strengthening the agency that enforces the law. The budget hearing Thursday will give you some idea of how many are willing to put money where their mouths are.

Footnote: After four years of Secretary of State Mark Martin's self-congratulatory reign, we still don't have online access to all campaign finance filings (independent expenditure reports, for example, are not available online). Nor has he made a meaningful move toward database filing that would allow for easier and thorough searches of contributors. Money should be spent on that, too.

UPDATE: My prediction of failure of Issue 3, the ethics amendment, was totally wrong and likely derails a serious effort to make that proposal even tougher. But the issue here about adequate funding and independence for the Ethics Commission becomes even more important under one-party control. Meanwhile, lobbyists may no longer take legislators out to lunch. Dutch treat only.

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