Just after the November election that placed Republicans in their strongest position in modern history, a flurry of discussion about enhancing Arkansas's mediocre state ethics laws ensued. Most promisingly, within days of the election, House Republican leader John Burris said his caucus planned to introduce a package of ethics bills. That would have been smart politics and good for government. But, any talk of ethics reform has faded as the focus has turned to the usual array of consequential (e.g., corrections reform) and trivial (e.g., changing the state's nickname) legislative items. A quick content search of the bills introduced in this session of the General Assembly shows that only the annual appropriations bill for the nine-employee Ethics Commission deals with governmental ethics. While ethics legislation may yet be introduced, there's clearly not the will to pass any legislation of consequence.
What might a strong ethics package to enhance public trust in the way state government does business include?
• Enliven Arkansas's quite strong disclosure provisions by requiring the use of modern search engines that would allow rank-and-file citizens to efficiently examine who gives money to candidates and how lobbyists spend their dollars.
• Elevate small donors' role in funding elections in the state by doubling the one genuinely progressive element of Arkansas's campaign finance laws—the $50 per year tax credit to offset individuals' campaign contributions to state and local candidates—and by barring giving by corporations.
• Create a public finance system for judicial races in Arkansas as Justice Robert Brown has proposed, eliminating the role of fund-raising among those who will have business before the courts. As former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has warned, "the perception that justice is for sale will undermine the rule of law that courts are supposed to uphold."
• Stop the revolving door by banning legislators from lobbying their former colleagues for two years after leaving governmental service.
• Finally, and most importantly, adopt the so-called "Wal-Mart rule." Just as our state's most important company bars employees from accepting even a cup of coffee from prospective suppliers, the same should hold for the parallel relationship between lobbyists and government officials. Even without a lunch or dinner being provided, conscientious legislators will seek out lobbyists to gain the information they need to make wise decisions on legislation. And, the fine tradition of socializing between legislators and lobbyists will continue. But, when those events end, everyone at the table should have to pay for their own food and drink. In its purest form, lobbying is an important, constitutionally-protected practice, but the people regularly wonder whether impurity enters the scene when meals and gifts are provided to public servants.
It's safe to say that none of these measures will be passed by the General Assembly. But, the ethics reforms that have made a difference in Arkansas weren't passed by a legislature; those laws that are the foundation of the ethics system in Arkansas were passed by the people after being placed on the ballot by petition.
In 1988 and 1990, a coalition of citizen groups worked with then-Governor Clinton to bring Arkansas into what was the mainstream of ethics reform; in 1996, the tax credit was added through the initiative process. Before it's too late and a public scandal has rocked the state and the public's confidence in the system, it's time for this to happen again. With all three of the measures mentioned above having passed with well over 60 percent of the vote, history strongly suggests that Arkansas's voters want a government absent of real or perceived corruption. Let's give them that chance once again.