Columns » John Brummett

Such a pity, but we'll take it



State legislators seem quite proud of themselves for ethics legislation unveiled this week. That is altogether pitiful.

The legislation itself is a pity, proposing only two modest reforms — that legislators must wait a year before becoming lobbyists and that legislators must abide by regular state employee guidelines in getting reimbursed at lowest-rate levels for travel.

But the greater pity is that legislators have a legitimate basis for bragging.

This bipartisan consensus legislation, if passed, will represent the most substantial ethics reform enacted directly by Arkansas state legislators in modern memory.

The last real advancements in our ethics law, requiring disclosure of lobbyists' entertainment of legislators exceeding $25 and banning gifts to public officials exceeding $100, were rejected by legislators in the 1980s. They were enacted only after then-Gov. Bill Clinton took them to the voters in an initiated act.

That remains the surest way, indeed probably the only way, to get major reform.

There is titillating speculation that Bill Halter, gone from the lieutenant governor's office, might put his lottery initiative experience to work to lead a campaign for 2012 for an initiated act forbidding the expenditure of even a penny by lobbyists on legislators for wining, dining and entertainment.

That is commonly known as the Wal-Mart rule, since the retail giant forbids its buyers from accepting even a cup of coffee from vendors. That is not because the company believes its buyers to be corruptible by so little as a cup of coffee. It is because the corporation values strictly its integrity and reputation and professionalism.

If only we valued state government as much and as strictly.

To be fair and complete: I agree with my correspondent who says it would be a travesty to enact a Wal-Mart rule only for legislators. Executive branch employees make buying and contract-award decisions for state agencies all the time and ought to be restricted to coffee on their own dime as well.

For the time being, we are left to take what we can get, meaning the one-year waiting period for lobbying and the modest expense reform, both of which failed in the legislature two years ago.

So this is indeed progress. And it seems to have happened in part in reaction to a flurry of columns in this space shortly after the general election. These columns cited the interest in ethics reform of a few newly elected Republicans and encouraged these insurgents to go for it.

House Speaker Robert Moore and Senate president pro tem Paul Bookout got wind of the movement, got ahead of it, and put a bipartisan group of representatives and senators to work.

A Wal-Mart rule never had a chance. Full disclosure of any and all lobbyist expenditures on legislators had no chance either.

It is because many legislators get their backs up at this suggestion that they are corrupt for getting a steak dinner or less from a lobbyist. They don't get paid much as legislators. They are away from jobs and home. They are new to the system considering term limits. They don't know anybody.

Again, though, it is not about them. It is about the integrity of the institution they serve and that they ought to honor.

The Republicans decided to take what they could get and claim a rare ethical victory rather than go all-in for a major brouhaha.

That is to say that Republicans caved on ethics even as they promised not to cave, but to fight no less than the veteran governor on tax cuts.

I would accuse these Republicans of caring more about cutting taxes than about ethical government except that it would be needlessly incendiary and, anyway, Republicans might ask what my point is.

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