Columns » Max Brantley

On Wisconsin

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In a matter of hours, a timid ethics proposal by Reps. Steve Harrelson and Dan Greenberg was headed for the scrap heap, though they waited a few days before conceding defeat.

They proposed a House rule to report gifts, meals, drinks, etc., from lobbyists. It burdened only House members. It didn't apply to the Senate. It had no enforcement mechanism. It didn't cover the people who employ lobbyists.

But none of the structural flaws explain the death of the proposal. The Arkansas legislature simply does not want lobbyist gratuities reported fully. And it most certainly does not want them ended.

Talk to an honest lobbyist. He'll tell you how lobbyists use the ruse of group events — to which all legislators are nominally invited even when only a handful are expected — to put on lavish feeds in excess of the $40 reporting threshold. Group events are exempt from individual reporting. He'll tell you about the question most asked by legislators at lobbyist feeds — “This isn't going to be reported, right?”

Go to fine restaurants. Watch lobby teams split up payments for food and drink. Search in vain, too, for reports of any lobbying activity or expenditures on the reports of the lobbyist who has a well-known open bar tab nightly for all legislative comers at a downtown watering hole.

In short, reporting won't lift the legislature from its ethical sewer. Lawmakers need to swear off the freebies. Or voters need to swear them off by an initiated act. It's not a radical notion. All we need do is adopt Wisconsin's ethics laws.

Wisconsin has a one-year cooling-off period before any state official or employee can go to work as a lobbyist. Their law says a public official may not act on a matter in which the official has a private interest. Lobbyists must file detailed reports, easily searchable on-line, that disclose not only legislation on which they are lobbying but future issues, not yet filed. You can imagine how useful this would be to people trying to keep up with the clandestine dealings that often characterize the Arkansas legislature. Surprise race track casino bills wouldn't be so surprising, for example.

And get a load of the simplicity of this rule, as articulated by the Wisconsin Ethics Board:

“No lobbyist and no business or organization that employs a lobbyist may furnish anything of pecuniary value to an elected official, candidate for state elective office, legislative employee or agency official.” Anything.

There's a limited exception for certain speaking fees, but Wisconsin has closed out the bar tab. And lawmakers there not only may not accept free skybox tickets from lobbyists and others, they also can't purchase them unless they can demonstrate equivalent tickets are available to the public at the same price,

Many lobbyists would tell you they'd love such rules here. They'd save money. They hate it when a legislator shows up for dinner with a girlfriend, kids, first cousins and the neighborhood mechanic for a free feedbag. Good lobbyists are perfectly capable of doing business as other business people do, in person at places of business, by phone and by e-mail. The poorer among them know, too, that the freebies work. Petty bribery influences vote after vote.

Legislators wouldn't fight so hard to keep these illicit perks and avoid disclosing them if they didn't recognize the corruption. There's an easy fix. Copy Wisconsin. You tell me: Is Arkansas a better place than Wisconsin because we have lower ethical standards?

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