Columns » Ernest Dumas

Pious profiteers



Sometimes, good things flow from misguided or impure motives. Misguided, impure — how exactly would you describe the impulse that caused most Republicans in the state House of Representatives to try to block the appropriation for the frugal little Arkansas School for the Deaf for the next two years?

The Republicans — 30 of them in the House — weren't going to let another $6,389 be spent next year at the blighted old school although that sum wouldn't cover even the increased cost of heating and lights for the children at the campus on West Markham the next two years. It was the principle of the thing, you see.

Republicans were elected en masse last year to cut taxes and stop all the socialism and rampant spending, and they weren't going to let another dime be spent on the deaf children beyond the shoestring budget they have now. It was a bold stand that showed people back home that these Republicans meant business.

Of course, their unity eventually collapsed, the appropriation got the 75 votes it needed and the whole thing has turned into heartache for a few Republicans and, probably soon, for virtually the whole legislature.

They may have to find a new, straightforward and legal way to do business.

What happened was that an industrious blogger — a Democrat naturally — did something devilish to embarrass the self-styled penny pinchers. He unlocked the poorly kept secret that each of them was collecting far more in illegal salary supplements from the taxpayers — up to $24,000 a year — than the $6,389 extra that the state will spend on the children at the School for the Deaf.

Fortunately for the lawmakers, it hasn't got much attention in the papers so the people back home haven't caught on to the hypocrisy, but the story is out there and someone will almost certainly sue to stop the practice. And then all 135 members of the legislature — or at least the 130 who take the pay supplements — will have problems. For many, the under-the-radar pay lets them serve in the legislature. They wouldn't do it for the current salary of $15,869 plus the per-diem and travel allowance the law permits them.

A couple of the Republicans, John Burris of Harrison and Ann Clemmer of Bryant, got special attention, and at least for Clemmer, a political science teacher, it seems to have caused some distress. She didn't invent the process but, like everyone else, followed the suggestions about how to set up the reimbursement. You claim your home or your business as a legislative office and pay yourself rent, or you set up a limited liability corporation or another ruse and pay yourself or your spouse for legislative advice, or you devise some variation of them.

Burris was the loudest and most pious advocate of stopping budget increases, so he was more deserving of the attention.

I describe the practices as illegal, and some will quarrel with that unless they read Amendment 70 to the Constitution, which says flatly that legislators may not receive compensation for their legislative service beyond their lawful salaries. They may be reimbursed for expenses they incur in connection with their legislative work but the Constitution says the expenses must be carefully documented and reasonably related to their legislative work. Otherwise, it is compensation, and compensation above $15,869 is illegal.

A little history: Until 1993, when Amendment 70 took effect, the salary of a legislator was $7,500 a year. The amendment raised the pay to $12,500 and permitted the legislature to raise it every year by the Consumer Price Index increase. The pay of other state officials was raised, too, and the selling point to the voters that year was that if they raised the salaries all the past shams for sneaking extra compensation to officials — "public relations allowances" and the like — would be ended forever.

But legislators are reluctant to add the COLA to their salaries each year because some legislator always takes a craven stand and says he's going to vote against it or refuse to take the increase, so that makes everyone else vulnerable to a campaign attack.

So after several years, legislators cooked up the expense ruse. They just submit an invoice from their consulting entity or their home or business for a flat monthly amount, usually the maximum, for "expenses" for the month.

Lots of honorable legislators are embarrassed about the sham but say they could not absorb the sacrifice in their businesses or occupations without it.

As it is, the law limiting the service of senators and representatives to six or eight years has dramatically altered the character of the legislature, and not for the better. A public-service career is no longer much of a motive to run. Lawmaking can only be a momentary diversion, and you make a big sacrifice to do it briefly. For most people, it isn't worth it without a modest remuneration.

So the legislature is increasingly a body of the retired elderly and those like John Burris who are at loose ends anyway. Legislative compensation, especially if it includes the sham pay, is actually a pretty good deal for them. Mark Martin turned his short legislative career into a financial bonanza and then was rewarded with the secretary of state's office, where he is spending even more recklessly.

In 1995, the last year for most of the long-serving legislators before term limits, 64 percent of the legislature was younger than 55. This year, only 43 percent is so young. Twenty-seven legislators are old enough to be on Medicare, compared with only 18 in 1995. The House and Senate are increasingly bodies of the leisurely, and it shows.

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