Columns » Ernest Dumas

Regnat's plan to end railroading

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Progressives broke the railroads' 40-year stranglehold on the Arkansas legislature after the Civil War only once, in 1897, when the legislature dared to refer to the people a constitutional amendment that set up a state agency to regulate the railroads.

If you can believe the attorney general at the time, Jeff Davis, they did it by the simple expedient of catching the railroads' chief lobbyist in a Little Rock whorehouse and locking him up with the ladies for 10 days — how much against his wishes we do not know.

The lawmakers passed the resolution during this respite from the lobbyist's attentions, and the voters ratified the law the next year by a margin of more than 4 to 1. It empowered the new state agency to curb the railroads' abuses, including discriminating against Arkansas farmers and producers with higher tariffs than the were charged their Yankee competitors.

That strategy would not work today. Civil libertarians would raise a ruckus about detaining a lobbyist against his will.

But a few young reformers who call themselves Regnat Populus 2012 have a better plan. They hope to put an initiative on the ballot this fall that would, among other things, impose the "Wal-Mart rule" on the legislature. Lawmakers could not accept a dime from lobbyists, corporations or any special interest that pleads before the legislature or government agencies. Literally — not even a cup of coffee. Wal-Mart buyers cannot accept the smallest freebie from brokers and vendors who want to sell their wares through Wal-Mart.

Regnat's initiative, which the attorney general has held up over the wording, would also prevent corporations and unions from giving money directly to campaigns and stop retiring legislators from hiring out for a few years to the gas companies, or whomever, to lobby their old colleagues in the Assembly.

If it gets on the ballot and is adopted, will that stop the influence peddling that has sullied lawmaking in Arkansas (and every other state) for most of our history? Almost certainly not, but the evidence is that strict ethics rules, strictly enforced, produce cleaner, more transparent government and sometimes government that is even closer to the people.

Arkansas has strengthened its ethical restraints on officeholders the past 25 years, both by initiative and legislative statutes, but they were virtually nonexistent before that. The Center for Public Integrity this week graded Arkansas out at D+ in a study of the political integrity of the 50 states. The center did not grade on the curve, so there were no A's, and a third of the states were worse than Arkansas. New Jersey, which has toughened its laws and booted out wayward officials with some regularity, came in as the best.

Arkansas prohibits certain freebies to lawmakers that are valued at more than $150 and requires them to report what they do get. The Arkansas Democrat Gazette did its biennial good job last week of sorting through the filings of legislators and lobbyists and reporting the gratuities ladled on legislators by rich right-wing and anti-public school groups, gas companies, utilities and big industries like Microsoft. Some of the gifts might seem chintzy or purposeless — a bundle of tickets to Razorback games, expense-paid trips to Turkey, Puerto Rico, Taiwan and boring spots around the country. As usual, it caught a few legislators who had not reported their gifts.

A better understanding of foreign cultures is a good thing, though of little public worth for a state lawmaker (one lawmaker said he went Istanbul to tell Turks to buy more Arkansas rice — you wonder, how did that go?), but the value of the trip is not for the legislator but the donor: good will and gratitude next time you need his vote or his sponsorship of your bill.

The railroads controlled Arkansas government like no other interest group in history. They got carte blanche eminent domain, absolutely no regulation and no taxes (except the tax money given to them). Farmers, merchants and laborers hated the railroads, but the companies swarmed the Capitol with lobbyists whenever the legislature met. Every legislator got free passes on the coaches for themselves and their families. They insisted they couldn't be bought with free rail passes (sound familiar?), but they always found the lobbyists' arguments against government regulation compelling.

Convict leasing, one of the great shames of Arkansas history, lasted a good 40 years by the same dynamic. Plantation and mill owners prospered by having the state or county supply free prison labor. Arrests for vagrancy and petty crimes went up in planting and harvesting seasons. Zeb Ward built a great fortune with the free toil of prisoners. When reformers were agitating to end convict leasing in 1871, he fed the entire legislature a lavish Thanksgiving dinner.

So it has gone down through the years. After an unfavorable Supreme Court ruling in 1957, Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co., the political behemoth between World War II and Vietnam, rammed a bill through the legislature in three days to allow the company to charge customers a nifty price for gas produced in company fields by company rigs. A couple of key legislators got comfortable jobs for life, another who owned a service station at Pine Bluff got the gasoline business of Ark La trucks in his part of the state and a loan to buy a farm, and largesse was passed around to dozens of others. One selfless senator asked only for the reward of a case of Falstaff, delivered to his room at the Capital Hotel.

You couldn't get by with that now. Influence peddling has got so much more sophisticated.

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